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Who will get the hangman’s job?

“Most people approve of capital punishment, but most people wouldn’t do the hangman’s job.” Said George Orwell but in Sri Lanka there are men who are willing to take up the job. The Prisons Department has called upon applications for the post of Hangman “Alugosuwa”, recently and so far received six applications according to the authorities. Vacancies exist at the Bogambara and Welikada prisons. Sri Lanka’s prisons chief, P.W. Kodippilli said that the Department is considering introducing a new Sinhala name for the job title “alugosuwa”. The Department will seek public help to choose a suitable new name and suggestions are requested to be sent to the Prisons Headquarters in Colombo.

Bogambara and Colombo prisons have gallows and there are 339 inmates on death row. The current hangman, whose name is not public knowledge, was only 22 when he started the job nine years ago, following his father and was promoted to the post of prison guard recently. Neither the current outgoing hangman nor his predecessor actually hanged anyone as no death sentence has been carried out on the island since 1976 and was done clerical duties most of the time. Although there was no imminent plan to restart executions theoretically it could happen in any moment according to the Prisons chief.

The death penalty has a long history in Sri Lanka. The British colonial authorities, after taking control of the whole island in 1815, abolished the arbitrary legal procedures of the decaying feudal kingdom of Sinhala rulers. The new judicial system included the death penalty for murder, as well as for “waging war against the [British] King”. Causing of death by hanging was introduced by Governor Sir Fredrick North in 1802.The first person to be hanged on a fixed gallows, in the history of Prisons on 10th February 1818. The death sentence was imposed on him for rising against the British Government. The first gallows was built in the Welikada Prison on 25th May 1871. The first death penalty was carried out in Sri Lanka, within the walls of the Welikada prison, on February 11, 1884, when Sir Arthur Hamilton Gordon was the British colonial governor in the island.  S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike won power in 1956 and suspended the death penalty but it was rapidly reintroduced after Bandaranaike was assassinated in 1959 by a clique within his own party and a layer of the Buddhist hierarchy. Under the new legal arrangement, introduced during the J.R.Jayawardhane regime state executions could only be carried out with the unanimous approval of the trial judge, the attorney general and the minister of justice. When there was no agreement, the sentence was to be commuted to life imprisonment. Before being carried out, the death sentence also had to be finally authorized by the president—a clause that effectively ended executions.

In Sri Lanka, the last person to hang at the Welikada prison, on June 23, 1976, was Embilipitiye Chandradasa alias ‘Honda Papuwa’ (Good Heart), and the last to be hanged at the Bogambara prison in Kandy was T.M. Jayawardena, on November 27, 1975. Thereafter, all those sentenced to death were not hanged, but commuted to life-imprisonment. “Everyone thinks the hangman is a man without a heart – this is wrong. I was lucky not to have hanged anyone and the gallows always makes me bit nervous the poverty made me to take up this job, but I will never let my children to take up this job.”said the current hangman as he was finally released from this pathetic job.

Sandun W

Sandun joined Lanka Help Magazine as a contributor in June, 2011. He has been consistently writing articles to our magazine. Many useful articles of this site are under Sandun's name.

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