Sri Lanka can’t find a hangman who will actually do some hanging


Sri Lankan inmates of the Welikada prison pray during a religious ceremony on the eve of new year, 2012. Inmates of the Welikada prison one of the largest prisons in Sri Lanka housing over four thousand prisoners invoked blessings and ushered the new year by engaging in Buddhist rituals. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

There are few things more difficult to find in an heavily Buddhist country than a qualified executioner. Cambodia, a country where inhabitants even frown upon killing rats, got rid of the death penalty in 1989. Nepal did the same in 1997. But Sri Lanka holds on.

The country hasn’t actually executed anyone since the mid-1970s, despite the fact it’s added 405 convicts to death row since then.

The problem is it can’t seem to find a hangman who will stick around.

It’s frustrated the country’s leaders high and low — and was once more on display Tuesday when prison officials admitted their recent hangman hire got upset when he saw the gallows and immediately quit. No one could understand it. He wasn’t even scheduled to execute anyone — just do administrative work.

“We gave him one week’s training, but he resigned after seeing the gallows, saying that he didn’t want the job,” Chandrarathna Pallegama, commissioner general of prisons told Reuters. “He told me that after seeing the gallows, he got upset… Next time, we will show the gallows to the new recruits before giving them basic training.”

The hire’s departure represents just the latest bend in the country’s serpentine path to finding a hangman who actually do some hanging. The Prisons Department said this executioner was the third most qualified candidate from a pool of 176 applicants. (It was unclear from the Reuters report how, precisely, one applicant could be more qualified than another at performing hangings.)

Then there was the debacle of 2012. In that year, following a rash of crime that included the sexual assault and murder of a 7-year-old girl, capital punishment was reinstated after a period of suspension. The government printed a help-wanted ad in a state-owned, Sinhala-language newspaper. They wanted someone who could kill. But would there be any applicants?

There would. Nearly 180 people entered their names. The field, according to an Economist report, was quickly winnowed. One man with one-eye was discarded — apparently not agile enough. Others applicants, which included rickshaw drivers and university students, were booted from contention because they were too old or too young. Finally, after 65 men — women weren’t allowed — showed up for interviews, two were chosen.

But even though the nation’s death row has swelled from 369  to 405 during that time, the hangmen never did much. And months ago, two more stopped showing up to work. As of Tuesday, there wasn’t any word as to whether the South Asian nation has renewed its search — or redefined its “qualifications.”

Terrence McCoy writes on foreign affairs for The Washington Post's Morning Mix. Follow him on Twitter here.
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