When Shahjahan Bouya was arrested incarcerated, he had not killed anyone. just one man. When he was released decades later, he had executed some of them. tens. He had become the most active executioner in Bangladesh.
At each execution, he was rewarded with a special meal of beef, chicken and fragrant rice pilaf, plus a few months off his 42-year prison sentence. He was released earlier this year.
“Some die and others celebrate,” observes this mustachioed 70-year-old, still full of strength, “that’s the picture of the prison.”
In Bangladesh, number three in the world for the number of death sentences according to Amnesty International, prisoners are themselves responsible for executions by hanging.
An educated Marxist revolutionary, Shahjahan Bouya joined the Sarbahar rebels in the 1970s who were trying to overthrow the government of the time, deeming it in the pay of neighboring India.
Mr. Bouya was convicted for the 1979 death of a truck driver in gunfights with police.
In detention, during the twelve years that the trial lasted, the “first class” treatment reserved for the executioners caught his attention, seeing one of them being massaged by four detainees .
“An executioner has so much power,” he thought. And he volunteered.
His first hanging, at the end of the 1980s, remains etched in his memory. He then assisted an executioner and remembers the condemned man who “calmly recited a Kalima”, a profession of Islamic faith, “without a tear”.
– “Facing death” –
Once the request for presidential pardon has been rejected, a person sentenced to death can be hanged at any time. But the executioner is informed several days in advance.
Mr. Bouya then lubricated his rope, then tested the trap opening mechanism.
Executioner Shahjahan Bouya (c) in front of the old central prison in Dhaka where he served most of his prison sentence, on October 20, 2023 in Bangladesh © AFP – Munir uz ZAMAN
The family of the condemned was summoned for farewell. Then hot water scented with herbs was brought for the prisoner's toilet, with white clothes and the last meal of his choice.
A Muslim cleric came to pray with him for the forgiveness of his sins. One minute after midnight, the executioner recounts, “we handcuffed the prisoner from behind and blindfolded him with a black mask. Then we took him to the gallows, slipped the noose around his neck and asked him to recite the Kalima.”
“When the prison director lowered his handkerchief, I pulled the lever,” he explains.
He rarely spoke to the condemned. “Faced with death, what can he feel?” he said. “He knows he is leaving the world.”
– “Another would have done the job” –
Prison authorities estimate that Mr. Bouya carried out 26 executions, but he counted 60.
Among the convicts passed into his hands are army officers incriminated in the 1975 coup d'état and the murder of the country's founding leader, father of the current Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Executioner Shahjahan Bouya (c) crosses a street in front of the former Dhaka central prison where he served most of his prison sentence, on October 20, 2023 in Bangladesh © AFP – Munir uz ZAMAN
In 2007, he hanged Siddique Islam, alias Bangla Bhai, an Islamist leader of the banned organization Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh who had carried out a series of nationwide bombings.
The executioner also executed six opposition leaders, including five from the country's largest Islamist party, convicted of war crimes committed during the war of independence in 1971.
p>Human rights activists say Bangladesh's penal system is deeply flawed, but Bouya rejects their criticism, even though he believes at least three of the people he executed were innocent.
“If I hadn't hanged them, someone else would have done the job,” he argues.
– “Never alone” –
Now free, Shahjahan Bouya rents a room in a modest neighborhood of Keraniganj, a suburb of Dhaka.
He proudly shows a small piece of this rope which hanged so many condemned men. “Some believe he has extraordinary power,” he says.
Executioner Shahjahan Bouya reads the newspaper at his home in Keraniganj, a suburb of Dhaka, on October 19, 2023 in Bangladesh © AFP – Munir uz ZAMAN
In prison, he shared his cell with around twenty inmates and lights were still on. If he woke up during the night, some people were chatting or playing cards.
“We were chatting, I was never alone”, he says, now “I keep a dim light on, because I cannot sleep in the dark.”
He abandoned Marxism and turned to Islam in prison. He dreams of a pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.
“I only have one small wish: to perform the Umrah (small pilgrimage, editor's note) before my death”, he confides, “the rest depends on what Allah gives.”
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