WHEN he first went to prison, Shahjahan Bhuiyan was accused of killing only one man. By the time he was released decades later, he had put dozens more to death as Bangladesh’s most prolific hangman ever.
Each execution was rewarded with a special meal including beef, chicken and scented pilau rice, and a reduction of several months in his 42-year sentence for murder until he was finally released this year.
“Some die and some feast,” Bhuiyan, a strong-looking 70-year-old sporting a thick moustache, told AFP. “That’s the picture of prison.”
Bangladesh ranks third in the world for death sentences passed according to rights group Amnesty International, and assigns convicts to carry out the hangings.
A well-read Marxist revolutionary, in the 1970s Bhuiyan joined the outlawed Sarbahar rebels trying to topple a government they saw as puppets of neighbouring India.
He was convicted for the 1979 death of a truck driver in crossfire with police.
In custody during his trial – a glacial 12-year process – he noticed the “first class” treatment afforded to executioners, watching one being massaged by four other inmates. “A hangman has so much power,” he said to himself, and volunteered his services.
His first hanging, in the late 1980s as an executioner’s assistant, is seared into his memory, when the condemned prisoner calmly recited the Islamic declaration of faith, the Kalima.
“He only uttered the Kalima,” he said. “He wasn’t crying.”
Once a prisoner’s final appeal for clemency to Bangladesh’s president has been denied, they can be hanged at any time. The executioner is informed several days beforehand, at which point Bhuiyan would begin preparing his rope and testing the trapdoor with sandbags.
The prisoner’s family is summoned for a farewell meeting, before the inmate is given hot water scented with herbs to wash, clean white clothes to wear and a last meal of their choice.
A Muslim cleric helps them pray and atone for their sins.
A minute after midnight, Bhuiyan said, “We’d handcuff the prisoner from behind, and blindfold him with a black mask. Then we take him to the gallows, tie his neck with the noose, and tell him to recite the Kalima.
“When the prison warden lowered the handkerchief, I pulled the lever.”
He rarely spoke to the condemned. “When someone is in front of death, how would he feel?” he said. “He knows he is leaving the world.”
Prison authorities put Bhuiyan’s total at 26 executions, but he says he participated in 60.
Those to die at his hands included military officers found guilty of plotting a 1975 coup and killing the country’s founding leader, the father of current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
In 2007, he hanged Siddique Islam, alias Bangla Bhai, an Islamist leader of the outlawed Jamayetul Mujahideen Bangladesh, which had mounted a nationwide bombing campaign.
Bhuiyan also executed six opposition leaders, five of them from the country’s largest Islamist party, convicted of war crimes during the 1971 war for Bangladesh’s independence.
Activists say that Bangladesh’s criminal justice system is deeply flawed, but Bhuiyan shrugs off their criticisms, even though he believes at least three of those he executed were innocent.
In one case, the two perpetrators of a rape and murder acknowledged that they framed the man who was put to death.
Before his hanging the condemned man told fellow inmates his only request was for his mother to be told he knew nothing of the crime, said Bhuiyan, who showed no signs of remorse or guilt for his actions.
“Even if you feel bad for him, can you keep him alive, or can you save him?” he said. “If I didn’t hang them, someone else would have done the job.”
Since his release and retirement from the gallows, Bhuiyan has rented a humble one-room home in a lower-middle-class part of Keraniganj, a Dhaka suburb.
He proudly shows visitors a small piece of the rope – one cord can last up to a decade – on which many inmates died.
“People believe it has extraordinary power,” he said, adding some used fibre from it as talismanic charms in amulets or tied around their wrists.
But there are some things he cannot get used to.
In prison, he shared his cell with at least 20 other people and the lights were always on. If he woke in the night, there would be people beside him, some talking or playing cards.
“We used to chat with each other, I was never alone,” he said.
Now “I keep a dim light on, because I can’t sleep in darkness”.
After abandoning Marxism for religion in jail, he is now a devout Muslim, and dreams of making a pilgrimage to Islam’s holy city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
“I have only one small wish: to perform umrah before my death,” he said. “The rest is whatever Allah gives.” (AFP)