The Sunday Leader

Death On The Gallows Of Paradise

By Asgar Hussein
When J. M. Chandradasa was hanged at Welikada Prison on June 23, 1976, he became the last Sri Lankan to be judicially executed. Before him, over 2,000 men were sent to the gallows, including the folk heroes Saradiel and Maru Sira.
Today, there is a great clamour to reactivate the gallows. Though the death penalty is inconsistent with the Buddhist ideals of non-violence and compassion, it seems to find strong support here.
“Hang the criminals,” cry the advocates of death, “and we can get about building a safe and moral society.” They will certainly be proud to learn that we have a long tradition of executions.
The gruesome story begins long before the gallows were introduced. It is said that during the days of the Sinhalese kings, there were 32 different methods of execution. These were vividly described by the death penalty advocate Senator E. J. Cooray many years ago as “ranging from the famous arecanut tree device where a man was tied to two trees and then rent asunder, down to the barrel device where the victim was put into a barrel with nails projecting on the inside and rolled down a hill or slope.”

Executions in the kingdom  

There are numerous examples of cruelty recorded in the olden days. Let us now look at the reign of that 17th century king – Rajasinghe II.
According to Robert Knox, who lived in the Kandyan kingdom at the time, the king’s cruelty was evident in the tortures and painful deaths he inflicted on his subjects, and in punishing whole families for the fault of one of them. He states that when the king was displeased with anybody, he first tormented them by cutting and pulling away their flesh by pincers and burning them with hot irons. When the prisoners were led through the city to the place of execution, the dogs would follow to eat them.
“At the place of execution,” writes Knox, “there are always some sticking upon poles, others hanging up in quarters upon trees; besides, what lies killed by elephants on the ground, or by other ways. This place is always in the greatest high-way, that all may see and stand in awe…”
Knox’s book ‘An Historical Relation of Ceylon’ shows a terrifying picture of one such victim impaled on a stake.
The last king of Kandy – Sri Wickrema Rajasinghe – was also notorious for his cruelty.
When the Maha Adigar of his kingdom Ehelapola was accused of conspiring against him and defected to the British, the king took his revenge by executing the man’s wife and children. The children, including an infant, were beheaded; their mother was reportedly forced to pound their heads in a mortar with a pestle before being drowned in the Bogambara Lake.
The whole of Kandy wept and grieved over this atrocity on May 17, 1814. It weakened the kingdom, and before long the British were able to hoist the Union Jack and subjugate the entire country, thus ending a tradition of national independence that went back 2359 years.

The British era

Under the British, the gallows became a common form of execution. However, in times of revolt and disturbances, they resorted to other methods. Thus the leader of the Uva-Wellassa uprising, Keppetipola, was beheaded and Puran Appu, who led the Matale rebellion, was executed by firing squad.
The town of Kegalle witnessed a sensational public hanging in 1857. That day, five men convicted of murdering an aratchchi (local official) were executed on a common platform. An account in the Times of Ceylon stated that they took leave of their families in a heart-rending scene. Constables cleared the path to the gallows before twelve Buddhist monks led the procession, and shortly before the executions these monks were said to have “displayed fearful stentorian volubility in reciting several passages from their religious books…” The report describes the final moments thus – “the usual necessaries were then gone through, when upon a signal from the Fiscal, down went the trap door, and the poor fellows were hurled into eternity.”
The execution of the legendary outlaw Saradiel on Gallows Hill, Kandy in May 1864 attracted a vast crowd. Among the spectators were many European women. They would have all been surprised to see that he was a small man, standing at just 5 feet 3 inches, rather than the powerfully-built and fearsome one they imagined him to be.
Saradiel had earned fame and notoriety with his daring exploits. Operating from the mountain hideout of Utuwankanda, he and his gang waylaid many carriages and coaches on the Colombo-Kandy road. After he was caught and hanged by the British authorities, he was celebrated in legend as a Robin Hood kind of figure who distributed much of his plunder among the poor.
Not long after Saradiel’s execution, a large crowd gathered to witness the hanging of a man named Appu Tamby at Kayman’s Gate in the Pettah. They were described as “a vast mob of lookers on, principally of the lowest class.” An execution in Moratuwa a few days later also lured many people. The Times of Ceylon referred to that hanging as a ‘disgusting spectacle’ and stated that its demoralizing effect on some of the hardened criminals present will probably manifest itself in a crime as foul as that for which the murderer was convicted. The man had protested his innocence before he died.
Many years earlier, J. W. Grylls gave a first-hand account of a public execution. The condemned men were a father and son sentenced to be hanged at a marketplace in Kandy. He wrote that the murderers were seated in a cart covered with a black cloth, and described them grabbing away at rice and curry from two large bowls as if their life depended on it. He added that even when they arrived at the foot of the drop, “they did not budge until they had finished the last morsel,   and when this was finished they looked as if they had consummated a most glorious action…”

Murder on impulse   

An observation during the British era was that murders in this country were committed on a sudden impulse.
C. F. Knollys, the Inspector General of Police from 1892 to 1901, noted that those charged with murder had led blameless lives until the incidents in which they became involved in the offence. “Their crimes,” he wrote, “were due to a want of self control and a lack of appreciation of the value of human life. The fact that they did not value even their own lives made it difficult to control crime.”
So how did the death row inmates regard their plight? Knollys stated, “the native of Ceylon, and especially the Sinhalese, appears to be little affected by his position. He does not lose his appetite, or his interest in ordinary matters, and he will within a day or two of his sentence, appear to be more concerned about the quality of rice supplied to him than the shameful end he is approaching. Quite at the last only does he appear to realise his awful position.”

Gruesome hangings

Some executions in the early part of the 20th century were described by Leonard Woolf – author of the acclaimed novel The village in the Jungle. As a junior civil servant based in Kandy, he had witnessed some gruesome hangings in the Bogambara Prison. He wrote in his autobiography that the body of one convict “went on twitching violently.” The executioner finally strangulated the man pulling him by the legs.
Woolf describes another execution that was far more horrifying. A miscalculation of the drop or some other problem resulted in the convict’s head being practically torn from his body, “and a great jet of blood spouted up three or four feet, covering the gallows and the priest praying on the steps.”
According to Woolf, the death penalty was totally useless. He wrote that the men he saw executed had all committed unpremeditated crimes of violence, killing from passion, anger, or in a quarrel. He stated that the death penalty “is not a deterrent to crime; in fact, by the mystique of horror which it creates it tends to induce pathological or weak-minded people to imitate the crimes for which they have recently been executed.”
Woolf was not the only person to be horrified by the hangings here. Many years ago, a retired jailor M. J. Kanapathipillai stated in the Ceylon Daily News, “Having witnessed over fifty executions I say the executions are more brutal than the actual murder the victim had committed.”

1956 and after

The death penalty was suspended after the coalition government of SWRD Bandaranaike assumed power in 1956. At that time, and for some years after, there was much debate on the issue among politicians.
Some spoke about cases where innocent people were sentenced to die. R. E. Jayatilaka said he knew of such cases, and asked, “Can you conceive a situation where an innocent man, because of the weight of evidence against him, loses his life?”
Senator E. W. Kannangara also said he had known of two cases where innocents died on the gallows. He said the men were convicted on the evidence led, and added “nothing could shake the evidence and the men went to the gallows. Everyone in the village, everyone who had anything to do with the case knew it was perjured evidence but no one could do anything in the matter.”
Kannangara was referring to perjury – or giving false evidence under oath – which has always been rampant in Sri Lanka.

Perversion of justice

Frederick de Silva, a politician who represented Kandy, gave a shocking example of how justice can be perverted by unscrupulous people. He referred to a case where he had defended a man charged with committing a triple murder. During the trial, it became clear that the real killer was the chief witness called by the prosecution!
The Justice Minister M. W. H. de Silva noted the impulsive nature of murders here, and felt that focusing on social conditions and education would lead to a decline. He also said there had been cases “where owing to mistaken identity, or false evidence, or some circumstance innocent people have been convicted and hanged.”
Dr. Colvin R. de Silva – a prominent figure in the socialist movement – also felt that innocent people could suffer. He noted that there were serious weaknesses in the machinery of justice, from the early stages of investigation up to the later stages of the trial. He also thought the existence of the death penalty went against “any systematic effort at fundamental social reform.” As a leftist, he obviously felt that socio-economic conditions contributed much to crime, and that the benefits of hanging people were illusory.
The death penalty was strongly opposed on the grounds that it is irreversible. Death is final, but if a person is imprisoned and evidence later comes to light proving his innocence, then he can be released and compensated.

The Morris Commission

In 1958, the government appointed a commission of inquiry to look into the death penalty. It comprised of eminent men and was headed by Dr. Norval Morris, who became a highly influential law professor and criminologist.
The Morris report was very comprehensive. Its verdict was that the death penalty did not have a stronger deterrent effect than protracted imprisonment, and could claim innocent lives due to miscarriages of justice.
It was also noted that whether or not a state used the death penalty, murders will occur in numbers and frequency determined by other factors inherent in the social, political and economic conditions of the country.

Bandaranaike assassination

However, just two weeks after the report was published, Prime Minister Bandaranaike was assassinated. He was shot by a monk named Somarama, and in the shock and anger that followed, the death penalty was reintroduced.
Though the Morris report was brushed aside after that, it came to be regarded as an invaluable study on the death penalty in other countries.
Following the restoration of the death penalty after Bandaranaike’s death in 1959, many men died on the gallows. Among them was Maru Sira. His hanging in 1975 led to controversy and evoked much public sympathy.

Maru Sira

Maru Sira – whose real name was D. J. Siripala – led a life of crime and was sentenced to jail. However, he earned the reputation of a folk hero through some daring escapes. These included escaping from a prison van while handcuffed, and tunneling his way out of the Anuradhapura jail with other prisoners.
While in hiding, Siripala was sentenced to death in absentia for killing a man in 1974. After his capture, it was decided to hang him on August 5, 1975 at the Bogambara Prison. The prison officials, however, feared him because of his reputation, and some threats he uttered only added to their feelings of anxiety.
Hence, to ensure that things went smoothly, they drugged him into a state of unconsciousness with an excessive dose of Largactil. In that state, according to an inquiry later, he “was carried on a stretcher, laid across the trap door of the scaffold, and the noose placed round his neck, and upon the trap door being opened his body dropped 2 feet, 2 inches and death was caused by asphyxia by strangulation…”
The manner of Siripala’s execution disturbed many people. Public sympathy grew when the sad plight of his family was publicized. His father Davith Appuhamy had tried to see him before the execution, but was refused permission. His wife Ran Menika, who used to visit him once a month in prison, was so poor that she had to sell her weekly ration of sugar to find money for the bus fare.
The admiration and pity he evoked resulted in two popular films about Maru Sira  – Siripala and Ran Menika and Maruwa Samaga Wase.
Within a year of Siripala’s execution, the country witnessed its last judicial hanging. The condemned man was J. M. Chandradasa, a farmer in his twenties convicted of murder. One of his final acts was to gift his corneas to the Eye Donation Society.
The gallows in Sri Lanka has since not functioned as a machine of death. However, if the advocates of death have their way, many more prisoners are likely to die at the end of a rope.
 (The writer wishes to acknowledge the contribution of Donovan Moldrich, from whose work on the death penalty he has drawn extensively in writing this article)        

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