Written by Dharisha Bastians and Daniel Victor
Sri Lanka, intent on reviving the death penalty after a 42-year moratorium, first has to find a hangman.
To that end, the government has placed advertisements in local newspapers, seeking male candidates between 18 and 45 years old with “excellent moral character” and “a very good mind and mental strength.”
The recently intensified search comes as President Maithripala Sirisena has vowed to re-establish hangings for drug traffickers as part of a broader anti-drug push. Sirisena, who is seeking re-election this year, told Parliament recently that the hangings would resume within months.
The president’s anti-drug overtures have proved popular, but critics have expressed concern about what could come next. During a state visit to the Philippines in January, Sirisena hailed President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal war on drugs there that has left thousands dead at the hands of the police and vigilantes, calling it an “example to the world.”
Historically in Sri Lanka, the job of executioner has been difficult to fill.
Since 1976, when the government placed its moratorium on executions, the government has regularly advertised the hangman job, hoping to have a candidate trained and ready in case executions resumed. Before then, the post of hangman passed from father to son.
But since the moratorium, just three men have held the post, and all of them abandoned it before carrying out a single execution.
The last one, P.S.U. Premasinghe, 45, landed the job five years ago but resigned in shock at the first sight of the gallows at the main prison in the capital, Colombo, days after he began training. The prison authorities gave him a month to reconsider; he did not. The position has remained open since.
After Sirisena’s announcement this month that hangings would resume, prison officials began compiling lists of drug offenders on death row. And the Ministry of Justice and Prison Reforms decided this week to import a 12-year-old noose from Pakistan for use in Sri Lanka. It has never been used in an execution.
Despite the 1976 moratorium, judges in this majority-Buddhist country have continued to hand down death sentences, none of which have been carried out. About 1,300 people are on death row, 48 of whom were convicted of drug crimes.
Under Sri Lankan law, murder and drug trafficking carry possible death sentences. Possession of more than 2 grams of pure heroin, known as diacetylmorphine, is punishable by death.
A few days after Sirisena’s visit, the Philippine government pledged to send a team of “specialists” to provide technical expertise for Sri Lanka’s battle against drugs.
Death penalty opponents saw the recent advertisements for an executioner as a distressing development.
“This is one job advert that should never have been put out,” Biraj Patnaik, Amnesty International’s regional director for South Asia, who lives in Colombo, said in a Twitter post. “There is no place for the death penalty in a civilized society.”
C.T. Jansz, a commissioner general of prisons in the 1950s, oversaw some executions during his tenure. He said even prison officials found them gory and gut-wrenching, and the environment inside the prison would become oppressive afterward.
“The whole prison mourns,” he said.