Saturday, January 10, 2009

The last executioner

Thai Takes

THE last time Chavoret Jaruboon shot a man tied to a cross was at 5.21pm on Dec 11, 2002. He fired eight bullets, instantly killing Sudjai, a rapist and murderer.

That historic kill earned Chavoret the distinction being Thailand’s last prison executioner. Since 2003, death row inmates in Thailand are executed by lethal injection.

Chavoret’s first execution was on Nov 23, 1984 – one day after his 36th birthday. On that day he killed two criminals.

“I did not feel much anxiety and I felt sympathy (towards the condemned man),” he recounted when asked on his “first time” execution.

He went on to kill a total of 55 men and women out of the 319 convicts executed at “Bangkok Hilton”, the nickname of the notorious Bang Kwang Central Prison, about an hour’s drive from the Thai capital.

“I performed the most executions (compared with other Bang Kwang executioners) and the last,” he said in Thai through a translator during a lunch interview at a hotel a few kilometres from Bang Kwang, which also has prisoners who are Malaysians.

Have you executed any Malaysian? I asked. “Mai mee (Thai for ‘none’),” replied Chavoret, who with Nicola Price co-authored an English-language memoir titled The Last Executioner.

For 10 years, Chavoret worked his way up as an escort (handling the prisoners), to gun adjustor (adjusting and aiming the gun used to kill the convict), to “the most prominent position of all” – the executioner.

The job of an escort was more challenging than that of an executioner, he revealed in his book. “It’s probably one of the most emotional roles in the whole process of execution because you personally pick up the prisoner from his cell.”

Death row inmates would know that one of them would be executed when lunch for the day was served earlier than usual.

There was dead silence as the escorts (who he described as “death’s messengers”) walked into the cell. The atmosphere was gloomy. And inmates – even the troublemakers – avoided eye contact with the escorts.

“When I called out (the condemned man’s) name and he looked at me, I would see the light going out of his eyes. It was as if his spirit had left him,” recounted Chavoret.

Those who had nothing to lose – those whose their parents were dead, or their wife or lover had ditched them, or those that had lost all their money – were calm when walking to their death.

So were hitmen. Chavoret usually apologised to the prisoners when escorting them to the execution room. And a hitman’s typical reply would be: “It is OK, I’ve killed so many people in my life.”

Those who struggled (they were so terrified that they could not walk and had to be transported by wheelchair) were those who claimed they were innocent, or had failed to exhaust all legal means to escape execution.

He would advise them: “It is going to happen anyway so please calm down because, as Buddhist, we believe if you were terrified when you die, you would be born in a bad place.”

The executioner’s job was easier. “All I had to do was pull the trigger. It is very easy to empty your mind and just shoot,” he confessed in his memoirs.

The escort blindfolded the convict and then secured him to a cross. The condemned man was tied with his back to a machine gun loaded with 15 bullets. And a screen – with a concentric circle pinned on it to denote the heart – separated the convict and the executioner.

But still, Chavoret admitted, before pulling the trigger, he hoped not to miss so that there would be no screaming.

Has he missed?

“They all died. But not all of them die instantly. I needed to keep shooting for three to five minutes for some of them to die,” he recalled.

“If the escort did not tie the convict to the cross tightly, the convict could wriggle. And when the bullets missed his heart there would be lots of agonising screams.”

Can you sleep at night? I asked.

“I’ve never had any sleeping disorder. And I never used sleeping pills,” the last executioner said without emotion.

“What I do is empty this story (the executions) from my mind. If I don’t do that I don’t know what (the executions) will do to me.”

(Published in The Star on January 10, 2008)