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COLOMBO (Reuters) - Sri Lanka said on Friday it plans to hire two hangmen, two days after President Maithripala Sirisena said he might sign off on the execution of convicted drug traffickers arranging drug deals from jail.

A prison official said applicants would be sought for two positions of executioner, vacant since March 2014 when the last hangman quit soon after setting eyes on the gallows for the first time.

Drug trafficking carries the death penalty in Sri Lanka but no one has been executed for any crime in the country since 1976. All death penalties have been commuted to life in prison since then.

But Sri Lanka, like other countries in Asia that have cracked down on drugs, feels it is being overwhelmed by narcotics and the president said recently action was needed.

"Since the president said he was going to implement capital punishment, we need to get ready. So we are going to hire two hangmen," Thushara Upuldeniya, a spokesman for the prison service, told Reuters.

"We will advertise and call applications for the vacancies next week."

Sirisena told a public gathering on Wednesday there were convicted drug traffickers arranging drugs deals from prison and he might sign off on execution orders for them.

At least 18 people convicted for drugs offences could be executed, Upuldeniya said. There were also 356 people on death row for murder, he said.

Thousands of people have been killed in a war on drugs in the Philippines and scores have been killed in a similar campaign in Bangladesh.

Sri Lanka, a predominantly Buddhist country, in 2015 voted in favour of a U.N. resolution for a moratorium on the death penalty.

International drug smugglers have increasingly turned to Sri Lanka as a transit hub in Asia, authorities have said.

But many citizens bemoan a sharp rise in all crime, not just drug dealing, since the end of a 26-year civil war with ethnic Tamil separatists in 2009.

The rights group Amnesty International on Wednesday urged Sirisena not to implement the death penalty, saying it should preserve its longstanding positive record on shunning "cruel and irreversible punishment".

Sri Lanka has had no executioner since March 2014 when the hangman quit weeks after he was hired, citing stress. Two hangmen hired in 2013 failed to show up.

(Reporting by Ranga Sirilal; Writing by Shihar Aneez; Editing by Robert Birsel and Nick Macfie)

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Reuters