[Protests in Tamil Nadu against the death sentence ]
The death sentence imposed on five Indian fishermen by a Sri Lankan court for drug trafficking has added an unfortunate dimension to relations between the two countries. The issue has roiled Tamil Nadu, where it is being seen as one more atrocity by Sri Lanka against the State’s fishing community. The Government of India has said the fishermen are innocent and plans to help them appeal the sentence. The five were arrested mid-sea in the Palk Bay region in November 2011 and tried for being in possession of heroin. Three Sri Lankans have also been sentenced to death in the same case. Irrespective of the merits of the case, the sentence seems unduly harsh, especially considering that the men had no previous record of being involved in the narcotics trade. Moreover, there is no instance of Sri Lanka handing down this punishment in any other case of drug trafficking over the last many years. In any case, capital punishment for a drug offence goes against all humane norms.
While the two countries have a treaty on transfer of prisoners under which an Indian serving time in a Sri Lankan prison can be repatriated and complete his sentence in an Indian jail — and vice versa — it does not cover those sentenced to death, unless the sentence is commuted. But there are still strong reasons to hope that Sri Lanka will not carry out the sentence. For one, in keeping with its Buddhist traditions, the country has not carried out a judicial execution since 1976. For nearly three decades, though Sri Lankan courts awarded the death penalty in many cases, in every instance the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. In 2004, the country decided to implement death sentences once again, but to date no execution has taken place. A process of appeals is also available to the fishermen, first in the Court of Appeals, then the Supreme Court, and finally to the President, who has the power of pardon.
While the final outcome may well be positive, the entire episode is a setback in other ways. First, it will complicate efforts to find an early resolution to the issue of how fishermen on both sides can live and pursue their livelihoods without hurting each other’s access to scarce marine resources. Secondly, with political and public passions in Tamil Nadu running high, attitudes against Sri Lanka are certain to harden in the State. In the past, hardline Sinhala ideologues and politicians across the Palk Strait have fed off Tamil Nadu’s anti-Sri Lanka sentiments. With Sri Lanka now in its presidential election season, there is reason to be concerned about the vitiated atmosphere. In the best interests of both countries, the issue must not be turned into fodder for political mileage.