- Associated Press - Monday, July 1, 2019

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) - Sri Lankan prison authorities have recruited two hangmen ahead of planned executions that would end a 43-year old moratorium on death penalty, an official said on Monday.

The recruitment of the two hangmen comes as the prison authorities are preparing to carry out an order by Sri Lanka president Maithripala Sirisena, who last week signed the death warrants for four drug convicts who will be hanged soon, amid alarm over drug-related crimes in the country.

An official at the Justice Ministry said two out of 26 who were shortlisted for training have been selected and appointed for the posts of hangmen.

He said the two selected persons - two males who are aged below 45 years - are now reporting to work. The official spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he is not authorized to speak with the media.

Sirisena told media last week that the dates of execution have been decided, but they have not been made public.

Sri Lanka last executed a prisoner in 1976. Currently, 1,299 prisoners are on death row, including 48 convicted of drug offenses.

Prison authorities advertised to hire two hangmen in February, after the previously recruited two people quit - in 2014 and last year - without executing anyone.

About 100 people had applied for the advertisement that said the applicants should have “an excellent moral character” and should pass a test conducted to check the “mind and mental strength.” It also said candidates must be Sri Lankan men between 18 and 45. Their monthly salary would be Sri Lankan rupees 36,410 ($203). The recruitment process began in March.

Sirisena has said narcotic drugs have become a menace across the country with 300,000 addicts. According to Sirisena, 60% of 24,000 inmates have been jailed for drug-related offenses. Sri Lanka prisons are built to accommodate 11,000 people.

Drug trafficking is a capital offense in Sri Lanka, which authorities believe is used by peddlers as a transit hub.

Sirisena’s move is facing mounting criticism from rights groups and foreign governments, including the European Union, which say the death penalty is a cruel, inhumane and a degrading punishment and that there is simply no evidence that the death penalty is an effective deterrent against the drug trade.

Giada Girelli, a human rights analyst with the Harm Reduction International drug policy research group, said last week that Sirisena’s move is “a gross violation of human rights - UN bodies must urge authorities in Sri Lanka to reverse this and work to consign the death penalty to the history books.”

Sirisena, who visited the Philippines in January, praised President Rodrigo Duterte’s crackdown on illegal drugs as “an example to the world.” Thousands of suspects, mostly urban poor, have been slain since Duterte took office in 2016. Rights groups have denounced what they say are extrajudicial killings. Police say most of the suspects were killed in encounters with officers.

Sri Lanka is predominantly Buddhist, a religion that advocates non-violence. Sirisena has previously said the country has had positive influences from all religions, but tough law enforcement is necessary to curb crime and maintain order.

In April, police publicly destroyed 770 kilograms (1,695 pounds) of drugs seized in 2016 and 2017. Police have seized 731 kilograms (1,608 pounds) of heroin, 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of cocaine and 1,607 kilograms (3,535 pounds) of marijuana so far this year.

Marijuana is the most widely used illegal drug in Sri Lanka, followed by heroin and cocaine. Drug-related arrests rose 2% in 2017 from the previous year to 81,156.

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