A 37-second security camera clip of a Tehran being mugged by machete-wielding assailants went viral to great outrage in Iran in December 2012, and resulted in the very speedy execution on January 20, 2013, of the culprits.
Alireza Mafiha and Mohammad Ali Sorouri were publicly hanged at a still-dark 6:30 a.m. before a crowd of about 300 people for Moharebeh (waging war against God)
One year ago today, 57-year-old Zhang Yongming was executed in China, just six months after a court in the province of Yunnan convicted him of murder. Zhang, a farmer, was modern China’s answer to Fritz Haarmann: authorities believe he killed young men and boys, cannibalized parts of their bodies and sold the leftover flesh at the village market.
Convicted of eleven murders, he’s suspected of six more.
When young people started disappearing in the neighborhood, the police initially assumed they’d been kidnapped and sold for slave labor, a sad situation that’s all too common in present-day China.
Witnesses reported that Yongming began selling meat at the local market, which he had never done before, after 1997. The meat, which he sold as ostrich meat, was cured and dried.
When police finally searched Yongming’s house, they found strips of human flesh that were hung up to dry around his house. He kept dozens of human eyeballs preserved in alcohol in bottles, which police said looked like “snake wine.” Investigators said Yongming likely fed human remains to his dogs. In a nearby vegetable garden, police found bones believed to be human.
This wasn’t the first time Zhang had faced the death penalty, either: in 1979, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but the sentence was reduced and he was released from prison in 1997. The government even helped him get back on his feet by giving him a bit of land and a monthly allowance.
But Zhang simply couldn’t stay on the straight and narrow: by the spring of 2008, he’d started killing again, and the murders didn’t stop until his arrest four years later.
Following his conviction in July 2012, he confessed to his crimes and didn’t bother to file any appeals. He reportedly showed no remorse and didn’t offer any apologies for his victims’ families or any explanation for his conduct.
A year ago today, a blindfolded, white-clad Rizana Nafeek had her head chopped off in public in Dawadmy, near the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan, was among the numerous foreign laborers routinely imported to Saudi Arabia for domestic work. There are an estimated 1.5 million migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia from South Asia (especially Sri Lanka), Nepal, Indonesia, East Africa, and the Philippines. Most are employed via the kafala (“sponsorship”) system that places their host in an almost lord-like position of authority.
Such workers are excluded from Saudi Arabia’s labor protections, and as a result stand vulnerable to horrifying abuse.* Household heads often confiscate these workers’ passports, and in some cases have subjected their domestic employees to rape, horrifying physical abuse, wage confiscation, and work weeks of 100-plus hours. One Sri Lankan woman had nails driven into her hands when she complained about overwork.
Rizana Nafeek hardly had time to find out whether any of these perquisites were in store for her. Not long after she arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2005 hoping to make enough money as a domestic drudge to move her impoverished family into a house, she had bottle-feeding duties for her host family’s infant foisted upon her. Nafeek had no training in caring for infants.
In May 2005, child child began choking while in Rizana’s care, and her panicked shouts summoned the mother. By the time the mother arrived, the infant had fallen unconscious, and the upset family immediately handed over their maid to the police, accusing her of strangling the baby.
This was the victim for whom Nafeek was decapitated, and also perhaps an illustration of tunnel vision in law enforcement. It’s quite doubtful whether there was ever any objective basis for supposing a homicide, but the fact that this was the color the family gave to events in the horror of the moment set in motion all the ensuing events.
During the investigation leading up to her 2007 trial and condemnation, Nafeek confessed to smothering the child — but she would later claim this confession was tortured out of her, and that the baby simply started choking on its bottle. (There was never a post-mortem on the dead baby.)
Opaque as the Saudi Arabian criminal justice system is, it’s got ample reputation for obtaining confessions by violence, and for mistreating migrant workers. And the accused had scant legal representation and no translator when she was tried for her life in a Saudi court.
After her conviction, it would also emerge that, order to land her the gig, Nafeek’s Sri Lankan recruiting agency falsified her papers to bump her age up past the legal minimum of 21. Rizana Nafeek arrived in Saudi Arabia carrying a passport that said she was born in 1982, making her 23 years old when she committed the supposed murder … but her birth certificate said that she was born in 1988, and was still a minor when the “murder” took place.
Noting that the dead infant’s family refused repeated blandishments of “blood money” to exercise its right to grant clemency, Riyadh officially “deplore[d] the statements made” by Rizana’s supporters “over the execution of a Sri Lankan maid who had plotted and killed an infant by suffocating him to death, one week after she arrived in the kingdom.”
More sympathetic Saudis, undoubtedly meaning well, offered Rizana Nafeek’s family cash compensation after the young woman was beheaded. That money, too, was angrily refused.
“I will not accept any gifts from the Saudis or the Saudi government which murdered my daughter,” mother Saiyadu Farina told a Sri Lankan newspaper. That anger was widely shared in Sri Lanka; Colombo even recalled its Saudi ambassador in protest.
That’s as may be, but money is sure to carry the argument at the end of the day. Wage remittances by overseas laborers are a massive boon to the island nation, amounting to $6.3 billion in 2012 — 8.8% of the Sri Lankan economy. And Saudi Arabia remains the single largest employer (pdf) of Sri Lankans abroad.
As of the time of Rizana Nafeek’s execution, at least 45 other foreign domestics, most of them Indonesians, were also awaiting execution on Saudi Arabia’s death row.
On December 7, 1982, a unit of army commandos entered the Guatemalan hamlet of Dos Erres.* There it authored one of the signature atrocities of the bloody Guatemalan Civil War.
This was the Guatemala of Efrain Rios Montt, once a junior officer during the CIA-backed 1954 coup that set in motion decades of civil strife.
Relative brutality in that conflict waxed and waned over the years. In 1982, the now-General Efrain Rios Montt overthrew another general and went full werewolf. “A Christian has to walk around with his Bible and his machine gun,” Rios Montt infamously remarked. And more than walk them: the general’s policy was a you’re-either-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists hard line called Frijoles y Fusiles, “beans and shooting.” Campesinos who were with Rios Montt got the beans.
Shortly before this date’s atrocity, a column of Guatemalan soldiers were ambushed by leftist guerrillas, killing 21. Those guys were going to get the fusiles — them, or any convenient peasants who might hypothetically be on friendly terms with them.
Dos Erres, a remote jungle village of 60 families, was the settlement nearest where the rebels were thought to be operating. The little town had already drawn the ire of the army by resisting recruitment to civil defense patrols.
Late on the night of December 6, 1982, 20 members of Guatemala’s Kaibiles commandos set aside their special forces uniforms and disguised themselves as guerrillas, in green t-shirts and civilian trousers and red armbands. Ostensibly their mission was to recapture the rifles the rebels had seized from the ambushed convoy, which were supposed to be stashed in Dos Erres.
Hiking two hours into the jungle to reach their target, the commandos crept into the still-sleeping settlement at 2 in the morning. With the support of a 40-man regular army detachment to seal Dos Erres’s perimeter, the commandos stormed into residences and drug bewildered townspeople out, herding the men into a school and the women and children into a church.
That commenced an all-day litany of horrors for the residents of what was about to become the former village. Dos Erres was wiped off the map by the end of it.
One of the senior lieutenants on the mission raped a woman, and other commandos immediately availed themselves of the implied license to abuse women and girls. By the end of it, the last sobbing women and children were led out to the forest and machine-gunned en masse.
They were by then the last survivors, save for a little boy who managed to escape into the jungle. Throughout the course of the 7th of December, the Kaibiles brought villagers old and young to the edge of the town well. “As they were brought to the well, they were asked, ‘where are the rifles?’,” one of the participants later described. “They said nothing about rifles, and they were hit on the back of the head with a sledgehammer, and thrown in the well.” Every commando had to participate, so that all were implicated.
Commando Gilberto Jordán drew first blood. He carried a baby to the well and hurled it to its death. Jordán wept as he killed the infant. Yet he and another soldier, Manuel Pop Sun, kept throwing children down the well.
The commandos blindfolded the adults and made them kneel, one at a time. They interrogated them about the rifles, aliases, guerrilla leaders. When the villagers protested that they knew nothing, soldiers hit them on the head with a metal sledgehammer. Then they threw them into the well.
“Malditos!” the villagers screamed at their executioners. “Accursed ones.”
“Hijos de la gran puta, van a morir!” the soldiers yelled back. “Sons of the great whore, you are going to die!”
[Commando Cesar] Ibañez dumped a woman in the well. [Favio] Pinzón, the cook, dragged victims there alongside a sub-lieutenant named Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes. When the well was half-filled, a man who was still alive atop the pile of bodies managed to get his blindfold off. He shouted curses up at the commandos.
“Kill me!” the man said.
“Your mother,” Sosa retorted.
“Your mother, you son of the great whore!”
Pinzón watched as the infuriated Sosa shot the man with his rifle and, for good measure, threw a grenade into the pile. By the end of the afternoon, the well overflowed with corpses.
The commandos left town the next morning with six captives: the rebel who had been forced at gunpoint to guide the Kaibiles to Dos Erres in the first place (he would be executed in the field); three teenage girls (the soldiers that night would take turns raping them, then strangled them the next day); and two very small boys (these were returned to the Kaibiles base). A few days later, the army returned and razed the remains of the devastated town to the ground. Only recently has the site been excavated and its many victims’ remains cataloged for proper burial.
The tragedy of Dos Erres became public in the 1990s. Five soldiers who participated in the butchery have each been sentenced to 6,060 years in prison just for this one incident, but there were many more like it in Guatemala in those years — many more people who were put to Frijoles y Fusiles.
A 1990s truth commission after the war pegged the total number of civilians killed during the war above 200,000, mostly indigenous Mayans and (as was the case for most at Dos Erres) mestizos. “State forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of the violations documented.”
The truth commission also found that the “government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations.” Indeed, supporting death squads againstleftists in Central American dirty wars was overt U.S. policy during the 1980s; just days before Dos Erres, U.S. President Ronald Reagan returned from a Latin American tour and told reporters that Rios Montt, whom he had just met, was “totally dedicated to democracy in Guatemala.”
“They’ve been getting a bum rap” from human rights nabobs, Reagan averred.
In the fullness of time that rap would eventually encompass Rios Montt’s own remarkable conviction for crimes against humanity and (since the Mayan population was targeted en masse) genocide in a landmark case that’s still being appealed as of this writing. (The May 2013 verdict against Rios Montt was immediately overturned; the case is obviously extremely politically sensitive.) In a separate case, he’s been charged specifically with responsibility for the Dos Erres massacre.
U.S. President Bill Clinton formally apologized for Washington’s role in Guatemala after the truth commission’s findings were issued in 1999.
The PBS radio program This American Life has an hour-long documentary about Dos Erres here; a companion ProPublica series has even richer (and more horrifying) detail.
* Named for its founders, two men named Ruano and Reyes, the name literally meant “two Rs”.
On this date in 2008, Chinese biochemist and businessman Wo Weihan was shot for espionage along with his alleged co-conspirator Guo Wanjun.
Wo had been resident in Austria since 1990, and his daughters Chen Ran and Chen Di were Austrian citizens. In 2004, he returned to his native soil to launch a medical equipment firm in Beijing.
Wo was arrested in China in January 2005 and accused of passing “state secrets” to Taiwan and the U.S. He didn’t have a lawyer until 2006 — by which time he had produced a coerced confession that he tried in vain to retract — and the 2007 trial took place in secret, so the case against him was troublingly opaque at the time of his execution. The verdict publicly released in March 2008 even included such trifles as “discussing the health of senior Chinese leaders” — an actual crime in China but awfully difficult to accept as a factor in a capital case.
“The lack of transparency does nothing to reassure us that the court’s conclusion was the right one,” said a Dui Hua Foundation spokesman.
Allegedly, Wo got information about Chinese ICBMs from missile expert Guo Wanjun, and passed drawings to Taiwanese and American intelligence. Chinese state media have claimed that Wo’s wife was able to open a restaurant in Austria with the payoffs.
On this day in 2011, multi-filicide Reginald Brooks was executed in the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, Ohio.* He was the fifth man executed that year and, at 66, the oldest since 1999.
Brooks (top) and the children he murdered.
Although his guilt was never in question, he had spent close to thirty years on death row while his appeals wound their way through the system.
On March 6, 1982, just days after his wife filed for divorce, Brooks shot their three sleeping sons: Reginald Jr., 17, Vaughn, 15, and Niarchos, 11. He then bought a bus ticket to Las Vegas, taking the gun with him in his suitcase, as well as his birth certificate and high school diploma. The police caught up with him in Utah.
Brooks had some history of domestic violence, but his only prior arrest had been for grand theft. His aunt, when asking the appeals board for clemency, said he had a normal, loving relationship with his children. Before shooting them all in their sleep, that is.
His attorneys argued that his crimes were motivated by mental illness, namely paranoid schizophrenia. Brooks had a normal childhood and young adulthood, but started to fall apart in the years prior to the murders. He quit his job in the 1970s because he thought his coworkers were trying to poison him. (He never worked again and his wife had to support their family.)
Beginning around 1980, he began isolating himself from friends and family, and accused his wife of committing incest with Reginald Jr. The family tried to get psychiatric help for him, to no avail.
In spite of overwhelming evidence, Brooks never admitted to his crime and suggested various bizarre theories as to what had really happened. A psychiatrist who evaluated him in 2010 and 2011 believed Brooks genuinely could not remember shooting his sons.
There was, however, clear evidence of premeditation: Brooks had purchased the murder weapon nine days before the murders, lying on his application form where it asked if he’d ever been convicted of a felony. He also turned on the stereo in his apartment and left the music blaring loudly, presumably to drown out the sound of the gunshots. Then, after the murders, Brooks immediately left town, taking documents he would need to start a new life — clearly suggesting cognizance of guilt.
The prosecution conceded Brooks did have schizophrenia, but argued that his illness was not so severe as to make him incompetent or legally insane, and that he was lying when he said he couldn’t remember committing the murders. Attorneys for the state suggested he murdered his children to spite his wife, “through a twisted sense of jealousy, hatred, or despair.”
Brooks’s ex-wife, Beverly, witnessed his execution. He had no last words, but he did give a message: glaring at the glass behind which the witnesses were standing, he stuck out the middle fingers of both hands. And as he slowly lost consciousness and breathed his last, his middle fingers still stood erect.
On this date in 2010, Farid Baghlani was hanged in Ahvaz for a 2004-2008 serial murder spree that claimed the lives of six women.
At trial, Baghlani openly attributed his crimes to his hatred for women, probably not a defense calculated to maximize his prospects of acquittal. Those who lost loved ones to Baghlani returned the sentiment, and celebrated his execution by handing out sweets.
Colin Campbell was said on that fatal May 14 to be en route to expel the Stewarts from the village of Duror so that Campbells could move in. But even Campbell’s everyday job of extracting resentful rents from estates repossessed from Jacobite sympathizers would have turned many a murderous eye his way.
Someone that day shot Colin Campbell in the back from wooded cover, then vanished, murderous eye and trigger finger and all, never to be never apprehended. So they got James Stewart to answer for it instead.
This wasn’t a tragic case of well-intentioned police developing tunnel vision on the wrong suspect so much as repaying tit for tat in a family feud. The trial was held at the Campbells’ Inverary Castle. Its presiding judge was the Campbell alpha male, the Duke of Argyll. Eleven more Campbells sat on Stewart’s jury. But then, from the Campbells’ side, or London’s for that matter, what was to say that this one murder might not be the germ of a new rebellion if not ruthlessly answered?
Still, there was “not a shred of evidence,” says present-day Glasgow barrister John Macauley, who is pushing for an official reversal of the verdict. “The whole thing from start to finish was a farce.” (Judge for yourself here.)
James Stewart was, however, the foster father of a man who actually was suspected of firing the shot, Allan Breck Stewart, a former Jacobite fighter who had returned from exile in France to collect rents for the Stewarts. Known to have threatened the Campbells previously, Allan was also tried and condemned to death — but only in absentia, since he suspiciously fled to France immediately after the so-called Appin Murder.
Many years later, Robert Louis Stevenson would use this dramatic crime, and Al(l)an Breck’s flight to safety, in Kidnapped. “I swear upon the Holy Iron I had neither art nor part, act nor thought in it,” Stevenson’s Alan says to the fictional protagonist in the novel, just after both have witnessed the murder.
And in reality, Alan too is thought by those who know the case to be clear of guilt in the matter. The Stewart family reputedly knew all along which of their number was Campbell’s real killer, but refused to give him up and kept the family secret for generations. It’s even said that that man had to be forcibly held down on execution day to prevent him giving himself up.
To judge by the most recent research, that man was likely Donald Stewart, the son of Stewart of Ballachulish and the best shot among a group of several young hotheads who resolved together to slay the Campbells’ hated Factor. The conspiracy also goes as the reason — or at least excuse — for keeping Donald silent, since in giving himself up he might see all four of them to the gallows. The late Lee Holcombe makes a comprehensive case for Donald Stewart as the gunman in the 2004 book Ancient Animosity: The Appin Murder and the End of Scottish Rebellion; Donald Stewart was also fingered publicly in 2001 by a matriarch of the Stewarts of Appin, though others of her family have not publicly confirmed that that’s the secret name.
James Stewart’s decaying corpse remained gibbeted on the spot of his execution for 18 months after, a rotting warning to the Stewarts or any late Jacobites. In 1754, a local halfwit called “Daft Macphee” finally tore down the gallows and threw it into Loch Linnhe … but its former position overlooking the modern Ballachulish Bridge is still marked by a mossy stone monument to James of the Glen, “executed on this spot Nov. 8th 1752 for a crime of which he was not guilty.”
Mostafaei wrote a Farsi post detailing the harrowing moments leading up to the Shojaee’s hanging, complete with the young offender kneeling in front of the parents of his victim imploring them to exercise their power to spare his life. That post, excerpted below, was translated to English by the site Persian2English.com.
The plan was to get the parents of the victim to drop the case so he would be spared from execution. We could hear the prayers of the activists from outside the prison. After a few minutes we were admitted into another salon. Behnoud was there along with a few of the prison guards. When the parents of the victim entered the room, Behnoud kneeled in front of them and begged them to not execute him. The head of convictions prepared the conviction papers. A few of the prison guards, Mr. Oliyaifard, and I went to the parents of the victim and begged them to not go through with the execution. The mother of the victim replied, “I cannot think right now. I have to put the rope around his neck.” After a few minutes we heard the Call for Prayer. Behnoud walked to another room to say his last prayers. He went to ask God for forgiveness.
After the prayer we all went to the prison grounds. My entire body was shaking and I didn’t know what would become of this boy without a mother. When Behnoud kneeled in front of the parents of the victim, he told the mother, “I don’t have a mother. Please act as a mother and tell them to not execute me.” We all went to another room. In that room there was a metal stool and a blue plastic hanging rope suspended above it. The parents of the victim entered that room. Then they brought Behnoud into that horrible room where they carried out the executions. I had never heard of sole executions in Evin prison. I thought it strange that only Behnoud was being executed that night.
Maybe this was his unfortunate fate that took him to die all alone. The people present in the room asked the parents to forgive and to stop the execution. The mother said you have to put the rope around his neck. Behnoud stood on top of the stool and they put the rope around his neck. After only a few seconds the mother and father of the victim ran toward the stool and pulled it away.
This case has been in the public eye for several years, and the predominant sentiment has been sympathetic towards the condemned man.
Xia and his wife Zhang Jing were part of China’s vast population of working urban poor, Xia having found his way into job insecurity by virtue of a layoff from the state electricity company. In the entrepreneurial spirit of the age, Xia started up an unlicensed business selling sausages and the like.
These denizens of the gray economy are, as a class, afflicted by the attentions of the City Urban Administrative and Law Enforcement Bureau, better known as the chengguan. Their benign job description entails administering municipal regulations, but this much-loathed force’s relationship to everyday citizens is perhaps best illustrated by the word chengguan‘s status as a shorthand neologism for bullying and abuse. Too many people know this goon squad firsthand, and too many stories of their worst excesses have circulated. Just this past July, the chengguan made headlines by killing a watermelon vendor.
“Chengguan abuses are an open scandal in China,” said Human Rights Watch’s China director. “The chengguan’s ability to flout China’s laws and inflict harm on members of the public is a recipe for greater public resentment and more violent confrontations.”
In the violent confrontation at issue in today’s execution, the chengguan chengguanned Xia Junfeng in May 2009. Xia fought back with his meat-carving knife, and slew two of his tormenters.
Death penalty cases redolent of the social stratification and institutional corruption that ordinary Chinese people experience have proven to be lightning rods in recent years.
Xia Junfeng’s turned, legally, on his claim that he killed protecting himself from the chengguan‘s beating.*
“Extralegal violence, thus employed to compensate for inadequate regulation and an absence of authority and legal deterrence, is no longer individual behavior. Such violence exists everywhere with the permission of the authorities. It is needed because of an overriding concern for “city image” and “urban management.” Finally, when extralegal violence is not monitored by the people and the media, and not punished by the law, it is only natural for Chengguan members to feel justified. Using violence with impunity enables the Chengguans to see violence psychologically as their “privilege,” a sign of status and pride. Since the legal and political status of Chengguan is unclear, it is only natural for its members to seek personal gain, vent their anger, and prey on the citizens they were intended to protect.”
This allegation didn’t fly in court, where brother chengguan denied that they’d been abusing the shishkebaber, but it’s won in a rout when it comes to the court of public opinion. “His life and death are more than just a legal matter, but a bellwether of the era, with the tsunami-like public opinion firmly on the side of Xia Junfeng,” wrote author Yi Chen today.
Particularly galling for many is the disparity in treatment between Xia Junfeng and the likes of Gu Kailai, the latter a powerful business and political figure who was able to avoid execution despite being convicted of a scandalous contract murder. And Chengguan themselves never seem to be at risk of harsh punishment for any misbehavior; had Xia Junfeng been the one to leave that confrontation in a body bag, there certainly wouldn’t have been a death penalty case.
Anonymous cartoon circulated on Weibo criticizing Xia Junfeng’s condemnation. (Via) The drawing of the boy in the background was done by Xia’s son, whose art school fees were earned by his father’s roadside business.