Sri Lankan authorities have shortlisted potential hangmen after the death penalty was reinstated. (ABC News)
Sri Lanka wants to start executing convicted drug traffickers as soon as possible, but it is having trouble hiring a hangman.
- Sri Lanka’s president is pushing to end a moratorium on the death penalty to combat drug trafficking
- More than 100 people applied for two positions as hangmen
- About 1,300 prisoners are currently on death row in Sri Lanka
The job was traditionally handed down from father to son, but during a 42-year moratorium on the death penalty, it has been harder to keep someone in the job.
A recently employed executioner resigned in shock after seeing the gallows for the first time.
His replacement never showed up to work.
But the moratorium is due to end any day now, with President Maithripala Sirisena vowing to start hanging drug traffickers.
Nearly 50 men have been interviewed this month for two positions as hangmen.
President Sirisena said he has been inspired by Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drug crime.
On a visit to the Philippines in January, he hailed Mr Duterte’s violent crackdown as “an example to the world”.
Police recently destroyed seized cocaine after President Sirisena (second from left) called for the death penalty for traffickers. (AP: Eranga Jayawardena)
“Drug menace is rampant in my country and I feel that we should follow your footsteps to control this hazard,” Mr Sirisena said during a meeting with Mr Duterte.
Mr Duterte’s policy has seen more than 5,000 people killed in police anti-drug raids since 2016 and prompted widespread condemnation over extrajudicial killings.
The illicit drug trade is a problem in the island nation of Sri Lanka, which is used as a South Asian transit point for traffickers.
Earlier this month, police publicly destroyed 770 kilograms of seized drugs as President Sirisena looked on.
More than 100 men apply to be Sri Lanka’s hangmen
Sri Lanka put job ads in newspapers seeking hangmen earlier this year (Reuters: Dinuka Liyanawatte)
The Government began its recruitment drive for hangmen with an advertisement in the local papers in February.
More than 100 people applied for the job — including one American.
He was immediately excluded because foreigners are not eligible.
Only men between 18 and 45 are eligible for the position, which pays about $280 a month.
The ad stated that applicants must have “excellent moral character” and “mental strength” to be considered for the job.
Prisons Commissioner TM Jayasiri Wijenath, who only took on the job last month, said applicants will undergo psychological testing.
He also noted that because it has been so long since the death penalty was used, Sri Lanka will have to import training for the hangmen.
The new hangmen will need some training, admits Prisons Commissioner TM Jayasiri Wijenath. (ABC News: Siobhan Heanue)
“We have to take consultancy and professional training from a foreign country. We have no preferences, but we have identified many countries, like Pakistan,” Mr Wijenath said.
The Government imported a hangman’s rope from Pakistan several years ago, but it’s never been used.
“Already we have a rope, but we have to check whether it’s ok or not,” Mr Wijenath said.
Sri Lanka’s death row prisoners face an unclear future
The two hangmen will be employed at the Welikada Prison in Sri Lanka’s capital. (ABC News: Siobhan Heanue)
Despite the decades-long moratorium, Sri Lankan judges have never stopped handing down the death penalty for serious crimes like murder.
Until now, the sentence has been commuted to life in prison.
But President Sirisena wants to resume executing criminals on death row as soon as possible, and his top priority is drug traffickers — murderers will have to wait their turn.
About 1,300 prisoners are on death row in Sri Lanka, and 17 convicted drug traffickers including one woman have been earmarked for the first round of executions.
Sri Lanka has quietly decided not to execute any of the foreign nationals, mostly Pakistani, on death row for drug trafficking.
Human rights advocates want to know why the identities of the condemned are being kept secret.
“All we have is a number; we don’t know their names, we’re not in touch with their families,” said Amnesty International South Asia director Biraj Patnaik.
“We have no idea whether they had a fair trial, we have no idea whether these trials took place under circumstances where the evidence was obtained under torture,” Mr Patnaik said.
“Sri Lanka has been criticised for its track record of using torture for extracting confessions.”
Some Asian countries follow Duterte’s lead
International drug smugglers are increasingly using Sri Lanka as a transit hub in Asia, according to local authorities. (ABC News: Siobhan Heanue)
Mr Sirisena’s decision to lift the moratorium on the death penalty is at odds with his own Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe’s stance on the issue, and has drawn sharp condemnation from human rights groups.
A statement issued by the European Union and also signed by Australia and Canada called on Sri Lanka not to reinstate capital punishment.
“The death penalty is an unacceptable denial of human dignity and integrity,” the statement said.
President Sirisena has promised that the first executions will be carried out soon.
“Because of the fact that there’s so much secrecy surrounding these executions, we have absolutely no idea of the timeline,” said Biraj Patnaik.
“Which is really extraordinary because it denies the people on death row and their families an opportunity to either appeal or even to connect.”
Given that Sri Lanka is a Buddhist-majority country, Mr Patnaik said he was hoping that prominent voices in the Buddhist clergy, as well as Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, will try to change Mr Sirisena’s mind.
A report released by Amnesty International this month showed that use of the death penalty declined worldwide last year.
However, the report does not include China, which is regarded to be the world’s largest executioner and considers its tally a state secret.
Thailand recently carried out its first execution in a decade, while Malaysia has just banned capital punishment.
The Prime Minister of Bangladesh started emulating President Duterte’s drug crackdown last year; it is estimated 200 Bangladeshis suspected of drug crimes have been the victims of extrajudicial killings.