Why is it hard to recruit hangmen in Sri Lanka?
Posted on February 15th, 2019

Colombo, February 14: If one were to go by the word of President Maithripala Sirisena, Sri Lanka will be seeing its first hanging after 43 years in about two months’ time.

The President has said that, as part of his drive against drug lords, he will sign the death warrant in the case of those in the death row who have been brazenly carrying on this nefarious trade even from behind prison walls.

But while it is easy to sign the death warrant, it is not so easy find an executioner – a hangman- to carry out the sentence.

In the past, Sri Lanka had announced that death sentences would be carried out. But no hangings were held. There were various reasons for this. One of them was the inability to recruit a hangman.

Some years ago, when the Sri Lanka Prisons Department advertised for a hangman or executioner, nearly 200 had applied. No detailed job description was given other than the stipulation that the job was not open to women but only to mentally fit men.

Apparently. most of the applicants had no clue about what the job entailed. Many of those who came for the interview walked away when the duties associated with the job were told to them.

Why is it hard to recruit hangmen in Sri Lanka?
Prof. Siri Hettige

However, in 2013 two hangmen who were hired. But they failed to show up. One hangman who was hired in 2014. But he fled when he was shown the gallows in the Welikade prison in Colombo.

It is obvious that among the essential attributes of a hangman are nerve steel and a stomach lined with steel. In fact the Sinhalese word for a hangman is Alugosuwa, a corruption of the Portuguese word Algoz (a beastly, cruel man).

It is reported that Albert Pierrepont, the celebrated British Chief Executioner, was told by his uncle: If you can’t do it without whisky, don’t do it at all.”

Albert Pierrepont came from a family of hangmen. Therefore, one could presume that hanging came naturally to him. But this cannot be said about people wholly new to the task.

Sociology Of The Job

However, the ugliness of the job is not the only reason for Sri Lankans not to be hangmen. There is a sociological reason for it too.

Improved gallows in Bogambara jail in Kandy. During the period of 1876 – 1975, 534 prisoners were hanged to death at Bogambara. Photo: Dinamina

Colombo University sociologist Prof. Siri Hettige sees the reluctance to take up the job as stemming from Sri Lankans’ obsession with self- identity”. In Sri Lankan society, whether urban or rural, one’s profession or the type of work one is associated with is a critical marker of one’s status.

In the Lankan social hierarchy of status, the executioner would be at the rock bottom. The Sinhalese term used for executioner is indicative of its unacceptable nature – Alugosuwa, a derivative of the Portuguese term Algoz meaning a beastly or cruel person.

Identity is so important that even criminals wear the garb of honesty and moral cleanliness in Sri Lanka. They masquerade as businessmen or politicians in the service of the country and its people. They display this makeover in the dress they wear. They invariably don the white shirt and the white sarong to show that they are lily white in their conduct,” Prof.Hettige said.

Nobody can be even a part-time hangman and keep it a secret in Sri Lanka because of the open-ness of Sri Lankan society, the sociologist added.

Ours is an open society where virtually nothing can be kept a secret. We are a naked society if one may use the term,” the sociologist said.

Killing Is not Taboo

This does not mean that killing per se is taboo in Sri Lanka and that Sri Lanka is entirely guided by the Buddhist philosophy of non-killing. Soldiers and war heroes are celebrated as Ranaviru. Sinhalese names bear witness to the high value attached to heroics in war.

But taking the life of another as a hangman or an executioner is not acceptable even if the execution is a judicial one sanctioned by the State.

This is in spite of the fact that the hangman’s job needs a number of skills. As Reeza Hameed put it in her article in Colombo Telegraph some time ago: The hangman must have a good brain for maths. For a start, it is crucial to get the length of the rope right and have the noose in the right position. It is difficult to get the neck to break instantly; it would require the hangman to accurately work out the ratio between the length of the rope and the weight of the prisoner he needs to hang. The drop has to be right to bring about a quick death. If the drop is too short, it would cause the victim to slowly suffocate to death or, if too long, it would result in his decapitation.”

(The featured image at the top shows Colombo University sociologist Prof.Siri Hettige)

5 Responses to “Why is it hard to recruit hangmen in Sri Lanka?”

  1. Dilrook Says:

    Shows the duplicity and hypocrisy of the Sri Lankan society.

    Close to one hundred thousands mostly unarmed civilians were killed in Sri Lanka by Sri Lankans but no one to kill convicted criminals! A seriously messed up society with a distorted moral compass.

    It is no harm if an Indian or another foreign national is awarded this job. Immaterial impact on foreign exchange. That will save locals and their families from social issues, disgrace and what some believe are karmic effects.

    The law specifies death penalty to some offenses and the law must be implemented. Sri Lanka has a very long history of torturous death penalty and other cruel punishments before Europeans invaded which it was a Buddhist country.

  2. Randeniyage Says:

    Killing hurts the killer not the killed.

  3. Christie Says:

    First of all we could get some legal or other advice from USA or from some of its States how to deal with this problem.

    Then comes our sociologist professor I thought was our Police Commission head still or of late.

    How is Yahapalanaya going Mr Professor ad Police Commissioner?

    Did you get paid enough or a job in Germany sponsored by Indians?

  4. Randeniyage Says:

    “the duplicity and hypocrisy of the Sri Lankan society”

    Very poor conclusion.

    Look at so called “developed” nations such as Britain, Australia, Canada and USA. Look at their duplicity and hypocrisy. We are no different to them.
    I agree the law must be implemented, but death penalty is being condemned all over the world and we are big a USA to be a lone hero. Karmic effects are being accepted gradually in western societies too. We did not find difficult to recruit soldiers when required under appropriate leadership. History tells.
    Don’t blame Buddhsim before learning.

  5. Randeniyage Says:

    Vedic theories existed be before Buddha.( Hinduism is something new, evolved from Braminism, vedic concepts and borrowed good concepts from Buddhism) and Buddha used the conventions and culture existed that time. Buddha always respected law and what learned people say. Karma in Buddhism not the same as Indian Karma. Krishna said ‘ your karma is my karma” , meaning all Karma belongs to God because God ( maha Brahma) created everything.
    No such thing in Buddhism. Buddhist Kamma is a mental phenomenon that shapes the individuals travelling in Samsara. If you behave like a heartless creature today and keep doing it, you will be born a cruel animal of yaka next birth. Very logical.

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