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When the killing hour arrives

The Bangkok Post, August 30, 2009

On Monday, the first prisoner executions in 6 years were carried out at Bang Khwang jail. This is the story of the reluctant officials assigned the task

Bangkok, Thailand -- At about 1.30pm on Monday, the heart of the commander of Bang Khwang central prison grew heavy when a message was delivered to him by the Corrections Department.

It was an order from the Prime Minister's Office, requesting the prison proceed with the execution of 2 prisoners, who at that time were taking in the afternoon air outside their prison dormitory.

After reading the order, Prasert Yusuphap sat in front of an image of the Lord Buddha in his office and started to pray and meditate. ''I'm a Buddhist and I don't want to order the killing of anyone,'' said Mr Prasert.

He and 30 subordinates had to carry out one of the toughest tasks of a corrections official - taking lives in the name of justice, a grisly duty spelled out in the Corrections Act.

Having been in charge of the prison for 8 months, it was the 1st time Mr Prasert had to oversee executions. The last executions in Thailand were carried out in late 2003 when 4 prisoners were killed by lethal injection.

Mr Prasert realised that the death order could possibly lead to chaos in the prison, where inmates serving heavy sentences are often in a fragile state of mind, so he kept the news quiet for a few hours until all prisoners were inside their cells.

At Bang Khwang, 743 inmates out of the the total prison population of 4,163 are facing the death penalty. But this more often than not does not end in execution as they still have legal recourse through the supreme and appeals courts. A total of 112 have had their cases finalised by the courts. Of those, 35 have lodged a petition for an individual Royal Pardon while the remainder are in the process of doing so.

Bundit Jaroenwanit, 45, and Jirawat Poompreuk, 52, 2 convicted drug criminals according to prison authorities, were not granted pardons and so the execution order came from the Prime Minister's Office.

At about 4pm Mr Prasert called his men to tell them about the executions. About 15 were assigned to take care of the last-minute business of the two prisoners and the rest were to prepare the execution process.

The toughest job was asking 3 men to conduct the lethal injections. No one wanted to perform the job, Mr Prasert said.Unlike execution by shooting, which was replaced by lethal injection in 2003, stopped in late 2001, Mr Prasert said, there is a ''close-up'' moment between the executioner and the prisoner when the drugs are injected into the body. He said as there were no volunteers.

3 guards who normally have routine chores such as watching over prisoners or providing occupational training were given the task.

''They don't want to do this, but someone must. It's our duty and we must perform it,'' said Mr Prasert.

The 3 guards headed to the prison's execution room to prepare the injections. Mr Prasert then informed the registration unit to identify the 2 men to be executed, who were then removed from their cells.

The pair were taken to the Phak Jai Sala (rest pavilion), to be informed about the death order. They signed forms to accept the decision and conducted the business of condemned men, ranging from writing wills to calling loved ones.

When it reached 6 pm, the pair were taken to the execution chamber, where they were given a chance to listen to chanting by a monk, and their last meal.

One hour later they were brought to the actual execution room where first they were injected with sodium thiopental, a barbituate which makes them unconscious, then pancuronium bromide, a muscle relaxant.

The last drug, potassium chloride, stops the heart beating.

''They [the executioners] asked for forgiveness from the 2, and after they finished the task I advised them to do merit-making,'' said Mr Prasert, who walked back to his office to again pray for forgiveness in front of the Buddha image.

Lethal injection is regarded as one of the most humane methods of execution, but some human rights advocates, including the Amnesty International, have decried the practice of execution whatever the means used.

Mr Prasert said that personally he did not agree with prisoner executions. He said that there could be flaws in the justice system which could end up with the wrong person being executed.

He said prisoners in Bang Khwang generally suffer enough from long-term sentences, some for life, and those showing remorse should be forgiven.

According to Nathee Chitsawang, the Corrections Department's chief, the department has not proposed any changes to the death penalty as the subject is still open to debate.

He said the department is an implementation body and had to follow directives. It has tried to take care of the officers involved in execution as best it can by providing training as well as extra allowances.



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