Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Dateline: Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka Prepares for Return of Execution

The highlights...

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka - The country's 25-year-old executioner has no experience. The hanging ropes have rotted. The bolts on the gallows have rusted.

This island nation hasn't had an execution in 28 years. But after the murder of a prominent judge a few weeks ago, the president lifted a moratorium on capital punishment. Now, prison officials are waiting for their first hanging order.

It's not just the condemned who are worried.

"I am a sitting duck," the executioner, Suramimala Wijetunge, told The Island newspaper in an interview, terrified that media attention had made him a target for reprisal from criminal gangs. After years of collecting a salary for doing little more than occasionally helping with prison deliveries, he fears for his life and has asked for police protection.

The first execution could come any day.

Capital punishment remains on the books in Sri Lanka, and courts have continued to issue the death penalty, though no one has been executed here since 1976.

....The threat today is crime, spawned by a civil war that is now largely calmed by a 2002 cease-fire. The war has torn at the country since 1983, killed some 65,000 people and resulted in thousands of military desertions.

"Right now we have 30,000 deserters," said Rienzie Perera, the police spokesman. "This is one of the main reasons for the crime chart to rise," he said. Contract killings can be easily arranged, and weapons — from the smallest pistol to the largest machine gun — are readily available.

The final straw came Nov. 21, when High Court Judge Sarath Ambepitiya, known for tough verdicts against gangsters and drug dealers, was gunned down with his bodyguard. The next day, President Chandrika Kumaratunga lifted the death penalty moratorium.

Today, 49 condemned prisoners with rejected clemency appeals await execution on this island of 19 million people, and 152 others sentenced to death have pending appeals.

...In the prisons, though, the preparations are stumbling along, with officials now unable to find any hanging rope.

India and China have been approached to sell some of the specially made cord, but officials have heard nothing back.

And at the two prisons with gallows, there is no one experienced to do the job.

Wijetunge has the title of executioner in Welikada Prison, but he got the job in 2000 when his father — who never performed an execution either — retired.

But despite it all, Marzook insists he will be ready.

"When I get the order to go ahead, I will ensure that all systems are go."