Saturday, December 31, 2011

Bangladesh's most famous hangman

It may seem an odd way to become famous, but Babul Miah has the honour of being Bangladesh's most well-known executioner, as the BBC's Ethirajan Anbarasan reports.

Mr Miah was jailed for life for committing a murder but he was released early for hanging 17 people to death inside the prison, and also for his good conduct.

Mr Miah returned to his home village of Nagor in northern Bangladesh last year after spending 22 years in prison. Though Bangladesh has dozens of hangmen, Mr Miah is considered the most famous.

In Bangladesh all hangmen are prisoners or former convicts who have trained in jail for the job.

Mr Miah is trying to rebuild his life with his family and friends in this picturesque village dotted with ponds, paddy fields and bamboo trees.

He was 17 when he was sent to prison in 1989 for a murder in his village which he says he did not commit.
"I became a hangman against my will. During my prison term the jail authorities told me that if I became a hangman, they would take two months off my sentence for every execution. 

"I wanted to get out of jail early, so I took up the offer," Mr Miah said while tending to his cattle.

New world

Bangladesh is one of the countries where convicted prisoners are still executed by hanging. 

More than 400 people have been executed since the country's independence from Pakistan in 1971. Officials say more than 1,000 prisoners are on death row.

Mr Miah was released last year as part of a general amnesty to around 1,000 prisoners in an attempt to ease overcrowding in jails. 

For Mr Miah his release after two decades was like a rebirth.

"I was overjoyed after my release. When I came through Dhaka, it looked like a new world to me. The city had changed completely. 

"When I reached my village, it was also different. I could not recognize many people and they also could not recognize me," Mr Miah recounted.

Soon after returning to his village, Mr Miah got married to a local girl, Mussammat Kobita Akther. The couple are expecting a baby.

Without a regular job, Mr Miah makes his living by working in his brother's farm and looks after cattle.
Sometimes, he works as a day labourer in neighbouring villages. He earns about 5000 takas ($70/£41) a month.

"A lot of people promised that they would give me a job or some money to start a business. But nothing has materialised. The cost of living has gone up tremendously in the last 20 years. 

"I am not sure how I will manage my family with my meagre earnings," said Mr Miah.

His wife said that initially she was a bit scared to live with someone who had hanged a number of people.
"I felt sad when I heard about his past and that he had hanged many people to death in prison. At first I was frightened. 

"Later on I realised that he was innocent and that he was simply doing his job in the jail," Ms Akther said.
"Nowadays he talks a lot about our future. He wants to give our children a good education so that they do not face hardships like him."

Mental toughness
Mr Miah was given special training in prison in how to hang people. He was taught how to set up the stage and attach wooden planks and the main hanging rope. 

"I was sad when I hanged a person for the first time. But it wasn't anything to do with me - the courts had rejected their appeals. 

"You cannot do the job if you show emotion or if you are not mentally strong. I had only one thing in my mind. If I do this, my jail sentence will be reduced," Mr Miah recounted.

He said he never once faltered during his 12-year tenure as a hangman in Bangladeshi jails. Even a year after his release from the prison he vividly recounted the procedures.

"Once the condemned prisoner was brought on to the stage, one of us would put the noose around his neck. At that time the convict used to shiver in fear. 

"Then I would wait for a signal from a senior jail official," Mr Miah remembered.

"When the clock struck one minute past midnight, the officer would drop a red cloth from his hand as a signal, then I would pull the lever. 

"The planks would go down and the person would be hanged. A doctor would check and pronounce him dead after 15 minutes."

Media spotlight
Though Mr Miah said he regretted every time he hanged someone, he was proud of one incident.
In January 2010, he was asked to hang the killers of the country's founding father, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Mr Miah executed five former army officers for their role in the assassination of the former president in 1975.
"On that day, I was very eager to hang them because they killed the greatest leader of our country. I hanged all five of the killers. 

"If the killers were a hundred in number, I would have hanged them all, without any hesitation."
The hangings attracted nationwide attention and Mr Miah became an overnight celebrity after a local newspaper published his photograph.

A private television channel also attempted to make a programme based on his experiences in jail.
Mr Miah said life inside prisons in Bangladesh was close to hell. Overcrowding and lack of sanitation was a major problem and many prisoners suffered from skin diseases.

Bangladesh's 67 jails hold around 75,000 prisoners, at least three times their capacity. 

Activists say the jails are unhygienic, filthy and sometimes violent.

"People living outside don't know the conditions inside the prisons. We used to fight for clean water.
"There's violence, drugs and homosexuality. But the situation has improved slightly in recent years."

Mr Miah said he would not wish a jail life even for his enemies. He does not want to think about prison life any more. 

However, he is using his experience in prison to bring peace to his village.
"Whenever there is any quarrel or clashes among villagers, I go and try to settle their disputes. Most of them don't know the law. 

"I tell them: 'Look at me, a similar violent incident landed me in jail and I only came out after 22 years. Do you want to face the same fate?' Then they sit down for talks."