Colombo, Nov. 20 (Reuters): Sri Lanka today reactivated its dormant death penalty for murder, rape and drug trafficking after a near 30-year lull, the government said, a day after a high court judge was murdered in the capital.
There have been no hangings in Sri Lanka since 1976 and, while many drug smugglers and murders are on death row, their sentences were effectively commuted to life in prison.
'The death penalty will be effective from today for rape, murder and narcotics dealings,' President Chandrika Kumaratunga's office said in a statement. 'The crime prevention unit of the police will be reorganised and strengthened with immediate effect,' the statement said.
The country's police force, short on manpower, has come under fire for not doing enough to crack down on organised crime, especially in the commercial hub, Colombo.
'It's reaching panic levels and you got to have a deterrent and I am happy the President decided to reactivate the death penalty,' inspector-general of police Chandra Fernando said.
Yesterday, a gunman shot dead a top Sri Lankan judge who had won fame in 2002 for sentencing the leader of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE), Velupillai Prabhakaran, to 200 year's in jail in absentia. High court judge Sarath Ambeypitia and his bodyguard were shot dead in the garage of his upmarket Colombo home, police said.
'He passed a critical (court) judgement earlier in the morning related to a drug kingpin,' said S. Lugoda, senior superintendent of police. 'We are trying to find out whether the killing was in retaliation.'
The police official said he did not believe the Tamil Tigers were involved. The rebels were not immediately available for comment.
An eyewitness had said yesterday that Ambeypitia's body was slumped in his car, covered in blood and appeared to have been shot at very close range. Empty shells lay on the ground nearby.
Ambeypitia had convicted Prabhakaran for his role in the 1996 suicide bombing of the Central Bank in Colombo in which 100 people were killed. Prabhakaran is revered by the LTTE and lives in hiding near the rebels' northern stronghold of Kilinochchi.
The Tamil Tigers have been blamed for dozens of killings of political opponents and breakaway members in recent months. The government and the rebels are trying to formally end the two-decade war for autonomy in which more than 64,000 people have died.
While peace talks with the rebels have stalled, a two-year-old ceasefire with the government has so far held. The government and the LTTE agreed to a ceasefire brokered by Norway in 2002, after the rebels' war for autonomy had displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes and left towns in ruins.
The Tamil Tigers had recently doused hopes of putting a speedy end to the civil war, saying a final peace deal was impossible under the current government. 'It is not possible to find a permanent solution under this government,' chief rebel peace negotiator Anton Balasingham had said on November 11 after talks with Norwegian foreign minister Jan Petersen. in Kilinochchi, the Tigers' northern stronghold.
'No progress has been made on the political level,' Balasingham said. 'I am sorry to say there is nothing new in (the government's) message.'
The government's Marxist coalition partner, the JVP, has voiced opposition to giving the Tigers self-rule, which Balasingham said hampered restarting peace talks. His comments came just a day after Kumaratunga said in an interview her government was exploring new, undisclosed options to end a stalemate in peace talks.
'I consider this a routine visit,' Petersen said in Kilinochchi before boarding a helicopter back to Colombo to carry the Tigers' reply to a message from Kumaratunga. 'We have been facilitators for five years. We are willing to stay with the process as long as it takes,' Petersen said. 'We don't know how long. But we are patient.'
'Discussions have been useful, but it's very difficult to give an assessment now,' Petersen said. 'Let's see what happens.'