Sri Lanka president signs four death warrants to end moratorium

Colombo (AFP) –


Sri Lanka's president said Wednesday he has signed death warrants for four condemned drug offenders to become the first people to be executed on the island in decades "very soon".

Maithripala Sirisena said he has completed formalities to end a 42-year-old moratorium on the death penalty which he has said is needed to clamp down on a rampant narcotics trade.

"I have signed the death warrants of four. They have not been told yet. We don't want to announce the names yet because that could lead to unrest in prisons," Sirisena told reporters at his official residence.

He did not say when the executions would be carried out, only that it would be "very soon".

An official in Sirisena's office said the president wanted the hangings to be a powerful message to the illegal drugs trade.

Sirisena said there were 200,000 drug addicts in the country and 60 percent of the 24,000 prison population were drug offenders.

His remarks came a day after Amnesty International said it was "alarmed" over media reports of preparations to resume executions.

"Sri Lanka's President Maithripala Sirisena must immediately halt his plans to resume executions...," Amnesty said in a statement.

Sirisena in February announced the country would carry out the first executions in decades, saying he had been inspired by President Rodrigo Duterte's strongarm campaign in the Philippines.

The president has also appealed to human rights organisations not to pressure him.

Criminals in Sri Lanka are regularly handed death sentences for murder, rape and drug-related crimes but since 1976 their punishments have been commuted to life imprisonment.

The country however currently has no executioner.

The justice ministry said more than a dozen people had been shortlisted to fill the vacancy, but no formal appointment has been made.

While Sri Lanka's last execution was more than four decades ago, an executioner was in post until his retirement in 2014. Three replacements since have quit after short stints at the unused gallows.