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The haunting past of the hangman

Avinesh Gopal
Monday, July 07, 2014

IT is a place where most people convicted of committing a crime are sent to.

While some change after serving their sentence, others continue to live a life of crime and keep making visits to the institution for different time lengths.

Although the basic necessities of life are provided to them in the confines of the four walls, their freedom, however, is restricted.

The maximum sentence that a person may get now for a serious crime is life imprisonment, which is often meted out to convicted murderers.

However, there was once a time in Fiji's history when convicted murderers were hanged until death.

The last hanging of a convicted murderer was reportedly in 1964, something that still makes a person emotional and sorrowful.

It is something that has been lingering in his mind ever since, although the last hanging was the first one for him to officiate in.

Today, The Fiji Times brings you part one of an exclusive interview with the man who officiated in the country's last hanging of a convicted murderer.

He prayed with the prisoner and escorted him from his cell to the gallows, witnessed the execution and prayed for him again after death.

By AVINESH GOPAL

email: agopal@fijitimes.com.fj

HE worked as a Customs officer after leaving school and after a few years of service, he was promoted.

The promotion was not within the HM Customs and Excise department, where he worked, but to the HM Prisons Department as it was known then.

It was mid 1964 and the promotion was the result of his diligent work in securing cargo on the Norwegian vessel, the Ragna Ringdal which had run aground on Vatoa Reef in the Lau Group in late 1962.

After spending about five months on Vatoa Island, he returned to Suva in mid 1963 and was greeted with the news of his promotion and a wage increment.

Being young and energetic then, he did not hesitate to take up the post at a completely new environment compared with his work as a Customs officer.

As the principal prison officer, his first posting was as the cemetery officer, which made him in-charge of outside working parties consisting of prisoners.

Isoa Koroivuki, now 78, was based at the Suva Prison, which was established around 1913. He was also in-charge of maintenance works at Government House.

"Transport was a scarcity in those days and I was given a bicycle, which I used to travel to the working areas and even up to Naboro Prison," he said.

"I had to visit Naboro and all cemeteries in the Central Division thrice a week. I was young (28 years old), married and strong at that time and I enjoyed my work."

Mr Koroivuki said it took him at least an hour to cycle from Suva Prison to Naboro on the gravel road, which was very dusty.

But he did whatever he could to protect himself from breathing in dust, not forgetting protecting his eyes too.

He said people entrusted to administer places of confinement or detention then found it much easier to administer from the laws as well as their personal philosophies.

"We had those types of prisoners then who were not sophisticated like those now. The iTaukei prisoners mainly came in for not paying provisional tax.

"Those committed for capital offences like murder were mostly rural dwellers.

"But the passage of time brings about changes and the prison began to receive educated prisoners who were found to be very violent, very aggressive and very destructive in outlook."

Mr Koroivuki said while working as a prison officer, he also attended some courses overseas to help him acquire more knowledge about his profession, especially in dealing with the prisoners then.

However, he says there was always a moment of sorrow and a sea of emotions whenever he thinks of his service with the then HM Prisons Department.

He said reminiscing on his time working as a prison officer filled him with waves of anxiety and emotions, sometimes bringing tears in his eyes.

"It happens when I ponder how we always used to impose solitary confinement on the prisoners with reduced diet and when I had to officiate in carrying out the courts order to impose corporal punishment on the prisoners.

"One thing that is still in my mind is the last execution that was carried out sometime in September 1964.

"It was mandatory to carry out the execution or hanging on a Wednesday and I don't know why this particular day was chosen."

Mr Koroivuki said the executions were carried out at Suva Prison's execution chamber.

"The execution compound was an entity of its own. It was a walled-in area and made up of condemned prisoners' accommodation. The execution chamber was within that building.

"The execution chamber was similar to others around the world and the condemned prisoners had to be hanged until death.

"I remember that three prisoners were often assigned to guard a condemned prisoner, someone who the court had ordered to be executed.

"When someone was convicted for capital offences like murder and sentenced by the court, the death penalty was mandatory at that time.

"The condemned prisoner was given all ample opportunities to appeal against the sentence and conviction in court.

"When any prisoner lodged an appeal against conviction or sentence, he was put on the Await Trial List pending the outcome of the appeal."

Mr Koroivuki said he officiated in the last execution or hanging of a condemned prisoner in September 1964.

He said the last person who was hanged to death did not get the opportunity of having a psychiatric evaluation, saying "anyone who kills another human being is not mentally sane".

"The last person who was hanged until death was a 21-year old Fijian of Indian descent who had butchered his wife, three-month old child and his 80-year old grandfather.

"He did it alleging that his grandfather was having an affair with his wife. He was from the Central Division and a small guy in built."

Mr Koroivuki, a Roman Catholic by faith, said he was successful in persuading the prisoner awaiting the death sentence to receive God's message through Reverend David Mustapha.

This happened on the night before the prisoner was scheduled to be hanged until death.

On the execution day, Mr Koroivuki went to the prisoner's cell and prayed with him before escorting him out, on the way to the gallows.

"I was ordered by my superiors to carry out that special duty to escort him from his cell to the execution chamber after his hands were strapped to the waist with very special leather belts made for such purpose.

"There was no fear in the prisoner but a radiance in the man's face that told me and others that he had been forgiven by God.

"As we walked towards the execution chamber, he told me that he wants to see God. He was ready for the execution without any fear," said Mr Koroivuki.

* NEXT WEEK: Sir, I will always pray for you.


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