10 executions that defined the 1980s

The Me decade marks the end of the “short century” and the transition out of the postwar period or the Cold War into … well, into whatever it is that’s come since.

While Communism and apartheid went out with hair bands, it was Back to the Future with the rise of terrorism, nationalism, and religious extremists. And if the warmest memories of the decade are of divided peoples breaching the walls that separated them, our world today is shaped just as surely by the violent ends meted out to many others.

10. Many Tiananmen Square protestors

China’s abortive liberal moment in 1989 was notoriously crushed by tanks. Although the fate of the famous anonymous man who wasn’t crushed is not known, executions for some “rioters” began within weeks of the June 4 crackdown.

9. Ted Bundy

The creepy-charismatic sex slayer whose diabolical crime spree from Seattle, Wash., to Gainesville, Fla., made his name synonymous with human brutality, Bundy left his still-unknown body count in the Seventies but his front-page persona while he scrambled to avoid Old Sparky was quintessential Eighties: oleaginous salesmanship, celebrity narcissism, cannibalistic hyperconsumption, and lethal sexuality. He even made time in his very last hours to horn in on the era’s trendy anti-porn racket.

Rivaled by few before or since for the volume, ferocity, and notoriety of his crimes, Bundy arguably remains the name in serial killing — as attested by the 5,000-plus comment thread he’s generated on this site and the new true-crime titles he continues to underwrite.

8. Satwat Singh and Kehar Singh

Shaheedi to their own minds and not a few of their admirers, these unapologetic assassins of India Prime Minister Indira Gandhi retaliated for one notorious anti-Sikh rampage … and triggered a second.

7. Benjamin Moloise

“I am proud to give my life / My one solitary life” wrote the poet, condemned as a terrorist (and not the only one) to worldwide outrage by South Africa’s increasingly desperate white government during the mid-1980s crisis that eventually collapsed apartheid.

6. Khalid Islambouli

The militant Islamic officer turned the page on an epoch of Middle East history by assassinating Nasserite Egyptian President Anwar Sadat after the latter made peace with Israel at Camp David.

5. Mehdi Hashemi

This Iranian revolutionary exposed the shocking Iran-contra scandal to a Lebanese magazine, and shook clandestine national security apparatuses all around the globe.

Ultimately, those who had dirtied their hands in this nefarious scheme, from the Nicaraguan bush to the White House to Hezbollah to Tel Aviv to Tehran, walked away with punishments ranging from a slap on the wrist to their name on an airport … but the whistleblower himself was tortured into a televised self-denunciation and his liberal political faction destroyed in Iran.

4. Maqbool Bhat

Patron martyr of the armed conflict for Kashmiri independence that’s been running for decades since his 1984 hanging. The return of Maqbool Bhat’s remains by the India government is still a going demand of Kashmiri separatists.

3. Kim Jaegyu

Had you composed the “10.26 incident” as fiction, no reader would have believed that the head of South Korea’s intelligence agency would have personally shot the country’s dictatorial president at a debaucherous wingding for (in Kim’s words) “democracy of this country.” Even more bizarrely, it kind of worked.

Our top two executions eerily bookend the decade with trends whose symbolic beginning and end were among that era’s defining events.

2. Militants who seized the Grand Mosque

On January 9, 1980, the Saudi Arabia had over 60 Islamic militants beheaded in several cities around the kingdom.

These men had shockingly seized the sacred Grand Mosque the previous year … and the political price for the Saudi state for profaning that holy place with soldiers to arrest them was an arrangement that immensely strengthened the hand of Wahhabi clerics and directly inspired a young Osama bin Laden.

1. Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu

1989’s stunning collapse of Communist authority across Eastern Europe culminated with the fall of venerable Romanian strongman Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife Elena. Their drumhead Christmas Day, 1989 trial (and resultant bloodied corpses) were captured on video for the ages, and symbolically tied up the decade with just days to spare.

Honorable Mentions

A few other executions to remember the Eighties by…

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10 executions that defined the 2000s

With the turn of the tide to the 2010s, we bid farewell to a decade that never did get a consensus moniker.

Like every decade known to the historian’s annals, however, the Aughties found plenty of work for the world’s hangmen.

As we prepare to flip over the calendar, Executed Today remembers ten executions that most palpably captured the decade’s Zeitgeist.

10. Dhananjoy Chatterjee, 2004

Although the world’s second-most populous country retains the death penalty and has dozens of death row denizens, an entire generation of Indians has come of age having never known an actual execution … never, except for the 2004 hanging of Dhananjoy Chatterjee (Update: Not any more). That made this otherwise ordinary criminal a worldwide controversy, and his archaic colonial-era hangman a temporary celebrity.

9. Aileen Wuornos, 2002

Two years after the magnetic prostitute/serial killer was given a lethal injection in Florida, Charlize Theron won an Oscar for portraying her in Monster.

8. Wang Binyu, 2005

This migrant laborer was just grist for the mill of China’s helter-skelter industrialization in the neoliberal economic machine … until, in a fury over wages stolen by his employer, he slew a foreman. Chinese media that picked up his story inadvertently made him an emblematic figure for the untold millions of his countrymen and -women who could sympathize with his sentiment: “I want to die. When I am dead, nobody can exploit me anymore. Right?” Internet buzz about Wang had to be forcibly squelched.

7. Timothy McVeigh, 2001

The Gulf War veteran was the face of terrorism in the U.S. from the time of his arrest for the 1995 bombing of Oklahoma City’s Murrah Federal Building, until three months after his June 11, 2001, execution.

6. Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni, 2005

Heart-rending photos of these teenagers hanging in Iran were a worldwide Internet sensation and made them an instant symbol of Iranian anti-gay persecution.

5. Mamoru Takuma, 2004

“I want others to know the unreasonableness that high-achieving children could be killed at any time,” said the author of perhaps the most infamous crime spree in modern Japanese history. The usually glacial Japanese capital system got the former janitor into a noose barely three years after he’d knifed eight children to death in the “Osaka school massacre”.

4. Cameron Todd Willingham, 2004

Something tells us that the ornery Texan — he took his leave of the world throwing an obscene gesture at his former wife from his execution gurney — would have been but pleasantly surprised to discover himself a major posthumous headache for Gov. Rick Perry (who signed his death warrant) and like-minded partisans of pseudoscience arson convictions. The sad part is that the evidence of Willingham’s potential innocence in the recent bombshell New Yorker article was basically all available at the time of his execution.

Rediscovery (with touching, or feigned, naivete) of the timeless problematic of executing innocents has characterized the 2000s not only in the U.S. but around the world.

3. The Bali Bombers, 2008

These grinning Islamic militants orchestrated the 2002 coordinated triple bombing on the Indonesian resort island of Bali that killed 202, most of them western tourists. (88 were Australians, the predominant nationality affected, as against only 38 Indonesians.) Then they spent six years gleefully milking their notoriety.

2. Zheng Xiaoyu, 2007

Zheng Xiaoyu hears his death sentence.

While proletarians like Wang Binyu died for pennies and many like Fu Xinrong died for their organs, the more privileged in China’s gangster capitalism played for higher stakes. For a decade the state’s Food and Drugs Minister, Zheng Xiaoyu took payola to rubber-stamp products that turned out to be dangerous to man and beast. His high-profile execution was Beijing’s response to a wave of concern about the safety of Chinese exports abroad … and a pledge, one year in advance of the 2008 Olympics, of China’s readiness for the world stage.

Zheng aside, elites behaving as gangsters (and vice versa) have been a recurring phenomenon on China’s execution grounds of late.

1. Saddam Hussein, 2006

Undoubtedly the decade’s signature execution, the 2006 hanging by America’s Iraqi puppet government of America’s longtime foreign policy bete noir was purchased for trillions that would have been better spent just buying the guy off … especially since cell phone video soon to circle the globe revealed the old rattlesnake taking command of a distinctly undignified scene.

Honorable Mentions

Some other notable executions to remember the 2000s by:

  • Creepy Malaysian pop singer Mona Fandey
  • Anti-abortion terrorist/martyr Paul Hill
  • Dmitry Chikunov, whose secret execution launched his mother on the crusade that would abolish Uzbekistan’s death penalty
  • Draconian anti-drug laws ensnaring foreign drug mules, like Australian national Nguyen Van Van and Nigerian footballer Iwuchukwu Amara Tochi in Singapore, and mentally ill Briton Akmal Shaikh in China
  • Vietnamese crime lord Nam Cam
  • Han Bok-nam, whose public shooting in North Korea was filmed and smuggled out of the country
  • The filmed stoning of Du’a Khalil Aswad in Iraq
  • Many people, such as Italian journalist Enzo Baldoni, taken hostage in Iraq and demonstratively “executed”

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1725: Leendert Hasenbosch cast away

On this date, in 1725, Leendert Hasenbosch was sent ashore in punishment for sodomy; six months later, he sipped his last bit of turtle’s blood.

He’d made a living first as a Corporal and then a Military Bookkeeper aboard a VOC ship in the Dutch East Indies. After being convicted of sodomy, Hasenbosch’s captain left him a castaway on Ascension Island.

The rest of the story, riddled in castaway lore, acts as a blip on the screen of cultural relativism for execution, religion and homosexuality. Being the diligent bookkeeper, Hasenborsch kept a diary during his six-month prelude to a different sort of Ascension. In January of the following year, British sailors discovered the castaway’s tent and things, including the diary (though no sign of his body was ever found).*

A diary entry of Leendert Hasenbosch.

Much has been written about what happened in those six months between sentence and death, including three published versions with varying degrees of poetic license. The diary’s surviving passages reveal a deeply religious man tormented by his actions, begging for forgiveness while facing imminent death.

Leendert Hasenbosch’s final diary entry.

And so the diary ends. Not a hint of irony on the horizon as the sun sets on Ascension Island.

* Excerpts, claimed as the correct English transcription of the diary, taken from “An Authentick Relation” in The Harleian Miscellany

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Themed Set: The Written Word

Capital punishment’s limitless literary potential has drawn the written word to it since time immemorial.

We touch through the condemned, a living creature poised on the threshold of death, that most universal and awful mystery of existence: small wonder that one of history’s most successful religions traces its foundation, its symbology, and its most sublime literature, to the execution of a Roman subject 2,000 years ago.

Conversely, the condition of a human being — even an infamous malefactor — helpless before the scaffold elicits the interest of the empathetic soul, awakens it to the compelling challenges of life.

What are justice, goodness, mercy?

What is an individual’s place (for an execution is an intrinsically social event) among his or her fellows?

Sophocles poses this question in Antigone; so does Stephen King in The Green Mile; between and beyond them lie unnumbered works both immortal and obscure, from every land and time and genre that if they have no other virtues at least concur upon one essential fact:

The death penalty makes for damned good drama.

Just as artists draw Calvary into their work, that work has drawn artists themselves unto Calvary — or the specter of the Calvary drawn artistry from seemingly modest men and women. “When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully” as Dr. Johnson had it, and we might observe this oft-repeated pith was issued in the most urgent context: a petition for clemency for a condemned clergyman who hanged at Tyburn nevertheless.

These stories — the fictional and the factual, borderless at the plane of the eternal; the gesture of saying what must not be said either in mortifying defiance of one’s milieu or from the ironic safety of certain death — these stories are mileposts marking a timeless path: from the bosom of a community to expulsion, where the corporeal death (however awful and real) is for its witnesses the metaphor of isolation, the lot alike of great heroes, great villains … and great artists.

From March 4 – 11, in the longest themed set yet employed in these pages, Executed Today takes an incomplete tour through the annals of artistry and execution.

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Six Current Heads of State At Risk of Execution

A year after the event, with the agitprop in the past and the voyeur shock of watching the cell phone footage worn off, Saddam Hussein’s hanging sure looks anachronistic.

There was always a throwback feel about it — the way the hanged man seized the stage and dominated his killers seemed like something straight out of an old melodrama. And the new despot marching the old despot ceremoniously off to the hangman? Is that even done anymore?

Actually … yes. The 20th century, so well-equipped with all deeds sanguinary, turns out to be rich in executed heads of state.* And with a looming future of growing populations chasing dwindling resources, there’s no reason to suppose we’ve seen the last overthrown chief executive to stand on the scaffold.

Who might follow in that illustrious train? In honor of Saddam Hussein‘s deathday, Executed Today presents six currently ruling heads of state standing in most danger** of eventual execution.

Forecasting such a dramatic turn of the worm is a doubtful business, but a few common threads among past specimens suggest the risk factors.

1. Potential for violent seizure of state power. Former American presidents don’t stand in the dock no matter what they’ve done. It’s all but a necessary condition for a head of state execution that a true enemy faction — whether internal, as during the French Revolution, or external, as in Iraq — have the capability of seizing state authority. A framework of peacable power exchange between cooperative elites is entirely unhelpful.

2. The personal import of the executive. The more a faction’s power is bound up in the person of its ruler, the more logical it will seem to a rival to kill that ruler. When the Ceausescus were shot in 1989, Romanian television broadcast footage of the bodies to dispel any rumor of their survival. Their deaths fundamentally altered the political facts on the ground.

3. The executive’s youth. Saddam Hussein was 42 when he took control of Iraq and in his early fifties when he ran afoul of his erstwhile American patrons. That gave the glacial pressure of the first two factors decades of natural lifespan in which to operate. By contrast, Saudi Arabia is not without its own risk characteristics, but they’re not likely to catch up with 83-year-old King Abdullah.

Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan

Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:




Islamic militants and Bhutto partisans get all the ink, but the behemoth Pakistani military is the more likely threat; Musharraf has already done well to keep all these rival factions at bay. Pakistan, incidentally, has a recent precedent: Benazir Bhutto’s father was hanged there in 1979 after his ouster.

Idriss Deby, Chad

Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:




In 2006, Forbes named Chad the most corrupt country in the world, not long after Deby survived a coup attempt and a rebel movement’s outright assault on his capital. Chad’s recent entry into the oil game does not bode well for an imminent return to political placidity.

Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan

Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:




Let’s see. Two previous Moccupants of Karzai‘s office have been executed in the past 30 years. The famously execution-friendly government he deposed still has an insurgent movement brewing. The foreign power that backs him may not have its eye on the ball. And at least three different assassination attempts have taken a crack at him.

Hugo Chavez, Venezuela

Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:




Chavez has already attempted one coup, survived another, and governed Venezuela going on ten years. He seems in less immediate danger than five years ago, but Chavez’s larger-than-life personality and the vehemence of his opposition foretell a long-running drama … in the course of which the current president could at some point be a man too dangerous to leave alive.

Yahya Jammeh, The Gambia

Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:




Relatively ensconced for the moment, Jammeh has been the strongman of mainland Africa’s smallest country for most of his adult life and it’s far from obvious that he’ll ever relinquish it agreeably. He’s been implicated in political murders, the sort of thing that accumulates bitter enemies and offers fodder for future courts. His country is also entirely surrounded by a longstanding rival, Senegal (a failed Gambian putschist found harbor there in 2006).

Nouri al-Maliki, Iraq

Risk of Overthrow:

Danger if Overthrown:




Did he have a flashback to his 1980 condemnation by Saddam when he signed last year’s death warrant? Or a premonition? It’s much easier to imagine al-Maliki assassinated than paraded to the gallows in the current milieu. But Iraq seems destined to remain a flashpoint for many years to come, and there could come a time when the balance of power and vicissitudes of fate put the Shia Prime Minister in a bad way for serving the American occupation his power depends upon.

Worthy of Note: Pierre Nkurunziza governs a country (Burundi) with a passel of murdered former executives, the Tutsi-Hutu conflict, and the lowest per-capita GDP in Africa … King Gyanendra of Nepal would have made this list a couple years ago, but has weathered his country’s crisis and appears set to peacefully end the monarchy … Rene Preval is the president of Haiti, but he’s also (in 2001) the only man to ever leave that office peacefully at the natural expiration of its term … 42-year-old second-choice Syrian heir Bashar al-Assad has yet to establish that he can hold down his treacherous job for the long haul.

Update: Welcome, Head of State Update readers!

* Yes, this is conflating “head of state” and “head of government.” Which is technically inaccurate, but considerably less clunky.

** None of these men, naturally, are likely to be executed. Even Saddam Hussein, even at the moment of the American invasion, was much more likely to have been killed by a military strike or by assassination than by execution. These are simply a few for whom the long odds of execution are a bit shorter than their colleagues.

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