Country Listing

Sri Lanka Table of Contents

Sri Lanka

The Penal Code

The passage of the Penal Code, Ordinance Number 2 of 1883, marked an important stage in the island's transition from RomanDutch to British law. Despite the wide variety of amendments to the code, from 1887 to as recently as 1986, it remained substantially unchanged, and established a humane and unambiguous foundation for criminal justice. Crimes are divided into eighteen categories that include offenses against the human body, property, and reputation; various types of forgery, counterfeit, and fraud; offenses against public tranquillity, health, safety, justice, and the holding of elections; and offenses against the state and the armed forces. The code provides for six different types of punishment: death by hanging, rigorous imprisonment (with hard labor), simple imprisonment, whipping, forfeiture of property, and fine. For sentences that involve whipping, the provisions of the Penal Code have been modified by the Code of Criminal Procedure, which sets a maximum sentence of twenty-four strokes, and requires that a medical officer be present during the execution of the sentence. Offenders under sixteen are given a maximum of six strokes with a light cane, and the sentence must be carried out in the presence of the court and, optionally, of the parents. In cases of imprisonment, the Penal Code specifies a maximum sentence permissible for each offense, leaving the specific punishment to the discretion of the judge. Imprisonment for any single offense may not exceed twenty years. The death penalty is limited to cases involving offenses against the state (usually of open warfare), murder, abetment of suicide, mutiny, and giving false evidence that leads to the conviction and execution of an innocent person. If the offender is under eighteen years of age or pregnant, extended imprisonment is substituted for a death sentence.

An attempt by the government to eliminate capital punishment received mixed reactions. In April 1956, the Bandaranaike government proposed the suspension of the death penalty for murder and abetment of suicide for a trial period of three years; this experiment was to be reviewed thereafter with the aim of abolishing capital punishment from the statute book. Parliament passed the Suspension of Death Penalty Bill in May 1956.

In October 1958, the government appointed a commission on capital punishment to examine the question of whether the suspension had contributed to any increase in the incidence of murder. The commission released a provisional report shortly before Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike was assassinated in September 1959 (see Sri Lanka Freedom Party Rule, 1956-65 , ch. 1). Concluding that there was no immediate evidence to support a resumption of capital punishment, the commission recommended that the suspension be continued until April 1961 to permit a more extensive and conclusive study. As a result of the assassination, however, the commission's recommendation was set aside. In October 1959, the government decided to restore the death penalty, and a bill to this effect was passed in November 1959.

Data as of October 1988