The job of hangman: no applicants need apply, now or ever

Today is day two of interviews for the job of national hangman in Sri Lanka. Yes, that’s right. If you haven’t got your application in yet, you probably won’t be in the running.

Hmm. It’s a grim prospect. A job vacancy for the Sri Lankan equivalent of Albert Pierrepoint. Why would you want to do this work? Killing people. (Then again, if you advertised for the job of “national torturer” you’d probably get a minority of people in every country applying for it - never underestimate people’s capacity to inflict pain and suffering, especially if incentivised and given official “legitimacy” for their actions).

I digress. Sri Lanka’s executioner vacancies (it’s two jobs, the hangman and an assistant) have apparently been flooded with applicants, a “vast number” according to Colombo Page. And 176 people (or 178 in some reports) are being interviewed. (The actual interviews don’t bear thinking about: “Do you have any special skills or experience …?”).

Sri Lanka’s official hangman is hopefully going to be in gainful employ in name only. The country hasn’t executed anyone for more than a third of a century, and while its courts continue to sentence people to death (there were at least 106 new arrivals on Sri Lanka’s death row last year), they are not being hanged.

In Gambia it’s a different story. Nine people have just been executed by firing squad (apparently on Sunday) and dozens more are at imminent risk of being killed. President Yahya Jammeh recently announced that he wished to see the execution of all of the country’s death row inmates by mid-September, meaning that at least 38 other prisoners could be shot in the next two weeks. As Amnesty’s Paule Rigaud says, you can only guess at “the terror the death row inmates and their families are facing knowing that at any moment they could be pulled from their cells and put in front of a firing squad.” Quite.

Jammeh’s “kill ‘em all” move appears to be catching. Yesterday Iraq’s Ministry of Justice announced that the country had just executed 21 people in a single day (Monday), particularly grim news given the country’s record (like Gambia’s) of abysmally unfair trials (think of Ramze Shihab Ahmed's 15-minute terrorism conviction for example). Iraq has now executed over 90 people so far this year.

It’s all very depressing. There’s no evidence that any of this killing will (as the pro-death penalty lobby contend) bring crime rates down; it will not, I’d argue, give any succour to bereaved families; and it certainly sets a dreadful example whereby premeditated violence is used as a supposedly worthwhile legal sanction.

I’d say all this where the death row inmate is guilty (including of especially egregious crimes), just as much as where they are possibly innocent. So with the self-confessed Mumabi bomber Mohammad Ajmal Amir Qasab, it’s totally wrong in my view for India to consider executing him, notwithstanding the appalling loss of life in 2008. Two wrongs don’t make a right.

And then of course there are the cases where there’s considerable doubt over guilt, doubt that sometimes - as in the Troy Davis case (but also numerous others) - follows that person right to their grave. A particularly worrying instance is the Reggie Clemons case in the state of Missouri in the USA. Last week the Guardian did a series of riveting films and articles on Clemons and Amnesty is calling on the Missouri authorities to commute the sentence (there’s a key legal hearing on 17 September, so watch this space on Clemons).

OK, not everyone agrees with my anti-death penalty stance. It’s a free world and all that. But I’d say - look at the facts and see how country after country has abandoned the death penalty because it’s hugely controversial, it wastes public money and it simply doesn’t work. I hope the new Sri Lankan hangman has absolutely nothing to do in his new job.

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