/ 29 June 2011

The tale of the accidental hangman

As a teenager, Babul Miah was sent to prison for a murder he says he never committed. By the time of his release two decades later, he’d sent 17 fellow prisoners to their deaths.

Miah was a hangman — one of around 15 specially trained convicts who continue to carry out executions in prisons across Bangladesh.

While neighbouring India is struggling to find an executioner to enforce its first death sentence since 2004, Bangladesh has always used a ready supply of willing recruits from its huge prison population.

“I don’t know why the guards selected me,” said Miah, who was sentenced as a teenager to 31 years in jail after pleading guilty to a murder he says his elder brother committed.

“The prison chief told me that if I became a hangman they would take two months off my sentence for every execution. He said it would be an easy job so I accepted the offer gladly,” he said.

Bangladesh inherited capital punishment from its British colonial rulers and has executed around 420 people since independence from Pakistan in 1971. More than 1 000 prisoners are on death row.

It is one of a handful of countries — others include Singapore, Japan and Iran — which still use hanging and all executioners are, like Miah, long-serving prisoners who have been selected and trained.

“You can’t do the job if you show emotions or are frail. And you can’t make mistakes, the jailers will be extremely angry,” Miah, who is now 40 and was released last year, said at his home in northern Bangladesh.

Miah was 14 years into his sentence when he was asked to take up the role. He learned how to prepare the gallows inside the jail, tie a noose and, crucially, never to look the condemned man in the eye.

“I would take the prisoner to the gallows, put the noose around his neck and press the key to remove the planks. The prisoner would
be confirmed dead in fifteen minutes,” he said.

Under Bangladesh jail traditions, hangings are carried out at exactly one minute past midnight, with the convict and their relatives informed just a day or two ahead.

Usually, hangings go smoothly, but Miah said he had witnessed some gruesome cases when the length of the noose had not been precisely calibrated with the height and weight of the condemned man.

One such incident involved Siddiqur Rahman, the deputy head of a militant group which carried out a series of bombings across the Muslim-majority country in 2005 killing at least 28 people.

“Rahman was a huge man. His head was ripped off by the noose a few minutes after we removed the planks. It was a horrific scene,” Miah said.

In January 2010, Miah executed five former army officers for their role in the 1975 assassination of Sheikh Mujibar Rahman, the country’s founding leader and father of the current prime minister, Sheikh Hasina.

“One of them, an ex-major, was crippled and he was crying as I came to take him to the gallows. Another, a former colonel, just looked at my eyes and asked whether it was time,” he said.

The hanging, which was strongly supported by members of Hasina’s ruling Awami League party, attracted nationwide attention and Miah became an overnight celebrity after a local paper ran his photograph.

“I felt proud to execute Mujib’s killers. I did not feel any remorse, for these men just killed most of the members of the family of the father of the nation,” he said.

His celebrity prompted a local television station to produce a three-part documentary.

“I wanted to use the television programme to talk about real prison life — overcrowding, how difficult it is for poor prisoners, the rampant drug use, the homosexuality,” Miah said.

“Nobody talks about these issues,” he said.

But after Bangladesh’s prison chief said the programme created a “bad impression” of the country’s jails, it was immediately taken off air.

Rights groups have long criticised Bangladesh’s penal system. It’s 67 prisons can accommodate around 27 000 prisoners, but the actual figure is around 80 000, leading to chronic overcrowding and food shortages.

“If a prisoner is wealthy, they will be able to smuggle in mobile phones, food, alcohol and drugs and will not be punished for it,” Miah said. “But for the poor every day is hell. The jails are jammed and you have to sleep in shifts,” he said, adding that as a hangman, he was given better food and facilities.

Miah said he still bitterly regrets the turn of events that led to his incarceration.

When his elder brother killed one of their neighbours during a marital dispute, his family persuaded the then 17-year-old Miah to take the blame, he said.

“The idea was that since I was young, the judge would spare me long jail terms and my brothers would get a reprieve. But I got 31 years in jail. My elder brother got 12 years. And another elder brother got 10.

“It destroyed our whole family,” he said, adding his parents became “paupers” trying to pay for their sons’ legal fees.

Last year, Miah was one of 1 000 long-serving prisoners given an amnesty as part of a drive to ease prison overcrowding.
He moved back to his village, took up farming again, married a local girl, and will soon become a father — but he has told no one there about his time as a hangman.

“I don’t want to see my son end up like me. I will work hard to leave a better world for him. The thought of him ending up like me pains me all the time,” he said. — AFP