Posts filed under 'Iran'

324 B.C.E.: Glaucias, negligent physician

1 comment September 30th, 2017 Headsman

On an unknown date in the autumn of 324 BCE, the sudden death at Ecbatana of Alexander the Great‘s closest companion led the grief-stricken conqueror to execute a physician for negligence.

Hephaestion was the Macedonian prince’s intimate friend and presumed lover from childhood, described by their mutual tutor Aristotle as “one soul abiding in two bodies.”* They even looked alike.

If Alexander was Achilles then Hephaestion was his inseparable Patroclus — a parallel that seems to have been on the minds of the Macedonians themselves while, as king and general, their host tore through the near and not-so-near East. As a loyal and energetic commander, Hephaestion was entrusted over and over again by Alexander with critical military positions; as confidante, Hephaestion gave Alexander counsel on the dangerous political decisions demanded by his civilization-straddling empire.

By the end, Hephaestion was not only Alexander’s clear number two but his brother-in-law — both men having taken brides from the conquered Persian royal family in the summer of 324, perhaps with a romantic eye toward the future dynastic union of their own descendants.

Such was never to be for Alexander, and not for Hephaestion either. Like Patroclus, he predeceased his companion but the spear of Hector in this case seems merely to have been a disease like typhus and the young warrior’s indiscipline at following a doctor’s strictures. Perhaps there lurked behind a draught more purposeful and sinister than overgorging on wine — who can tell at this distance? — but Hephaestion shockingly went from the acme of health to his sickbed to sudden death in a matter of days. A distraught Alexander wanted honors and grief but he also wanted someone to blame.

As to the physician’s execution, we are unsure of the fact as well as the date, but it seems like the sort of larger-than-life gesture of sorrow that an Alexander ought to make. We’re thinly sourced 2400 years into the past; Plutarch, writing some 400 years later, has one version of a story that had clearly become common coinage in the ancient world:

[I]t chanced that Hephaestion had a fever; and since, young man and soldier that he was, he could not submit to a strict regimen, as soon as Glaucus, his physician, had gone off to the theatre, he sat down to breakfast, ate a boiled fowl, drank a huge cooler of wine, fell sick, and in a little while died. Alexander’s grief at this loss knew no bounds. He immediately ordered that the manes and tails of all horses and mules should be shorn in token of mourning, and took away the battlements of the cities round about; he also crucified the wretched physician, and put a stop to the sound of flutes and every kind of music in the camp for a long time, until an oracular response from Ammon came bidding him honour Hephaestion as a hero and sacrifice to him.


Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus, by Gavin Hamilton (c. 1760)

The Greek historian Arrian makes a similar (albeit more circumspect) claim to that of his Roman near-contemporary.

In Ecbatana Alexander offered sacrifice according to his custom, for his good fortune; and he celebrated a gymnastic and musical contest. He also held drinking parties with his Companions.

At this time Hephaestion fell sick; and they say that the stadium was full of people on the seventh day of his fever, for on that day there was a gymnastic contest for boys. When Alexander was informed that Hephaestion was in a critical state, he went to him without delay, but found him no longer alive.

Different authors have given different accounts of Alexander’s grief on this occasion; but they all agree in this, that his grief was great. As to what was done in honour of Hephaestion, they make diverse statements, just as each writer was actuated by good-will or envy towards him, or even towards Alexander himself. Of the authors who have made these reckless statements, some seem to me to have thought that whatever Alexander said or did to show his excessive grief for the man who was the dearest to him in the world, redounds to his honour; whereas others seem to have thought that it rather tended to his disgrace, as being conduct unbecoming to any king and especially to Alexander. Some say that he threw himself on his companion’s body and lay there for the greater part of that day, bewailing him and refusing to depart from him, until he was forcibly carried away by his Companions. Others that he lay upon the body the whole day and night. Others again say that he hanged the physician Glaucias, for having indiscreetly given the medicine; while others affirm that he, being a spectator of the games, neglected Hephaestion, who was filled with wine.

Whatever we make of the Glaucias subplot, it’s a certainty that mighty Alexander then proceeded upon a protracted performance of conspicuous languishing that was aborted only by his own death about eight months later: two men who had stood hand in hand upon the summit of the world, stricken dead in such rapid and inexplicable succession that their bereavements ran upon one another.** As Arrian notes, the Macedon Achilles determined in honor of his Patroclus “to celebrate a gymnastic and musical contest, much more magnificent than any of the preceding, both in the multitude of competitors and in the amount of money expended upon it” — and that many of its reputed 3,000 participants “a short time after also competed in the games held at Alexander’s own funeral.”

* Yet another one of Macedonia’s greatest generation under Aristotle’s tutelage was destined in time to execute Alexander’s mother.

** It’s merely speculative, but one could readily imagine that Alexander’s own downward health spiral had a little something to do with despondency at the loss of his friend.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Iran,Macedonia,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Persia,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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1795: Sayat-Nova

1 comment September 22nd, 2017 Headsman

The Armenian poet Sayat-Nova (“King of Songs”) was martyred on this date in 1795 by the invading Qajar army.

Poet, singer, and legendary wielder of the kamancheh in the court of the Georgian king,* Sayat-Nova was also an ordained priest in the Armenian Church.

This last point would figure crucially upon the invasion of the Qajar Shah seized the Caucasus in a 1795 bloodbath:** trapped in a monastery, Sayat-Nova faced the ritual Islamic offer of conversion or death. He chose immortality.

His legendary name and likeness adorn many public places in Armenia (not to mention an Armenian cognac), as well as places touched by the Armenian diaspora like a Boston dance company.

YouTube searches on the man’s name yield a rich trove of songs and movies about the man, but the best commemoration for these pages is surely his own music.

* Until he got ejected for scandalously falling in love with the king’s sister and became a wandering bard. Poets!

** The Shah was assassinated two years later, and the Qajars lost their grip on the Caucasus as a result.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Armenia,Artists,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Famous,God,History,Iran,Martyrs,Myths,Occupation and Colonialism,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1982: Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, revolutionary foreign minister

Add comment September 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1982, Iranian revolutionary politician Sadegh Ghotbzadeh was shot in Tehran’s Evin Prison for supposedly plotting to overthrow the Islamic Republic.

Ghotbzadeh had come by his revolutionary aspirations back in the 1950s and 1960s, after radicalizing as a teenager with the ouster of nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh; he’d be kicked out of Georgetown University for neglecting his studies in favor of protesting the U.S.-backed Shah and enter a twilight world of professional revolutionary exiles.


In Paris with the Ayatollah Khomeini.

He eventually joined the circle orbiting the Ayatollah Khomenei, returning to Iran with him on the famous Air France flight of February 1, 1979. Ghotbzadeh would serve as the frequent translator and spokesman of Khomeini, eventually becoming Foreign Minister amid the tumult of the Iranian students’ seizure of U.S. embassy hostages in late 1979.

In those fraught months, the urbane Ghotbzadeh became a familiar face on American televisions. He was notable advocate within Iran for quickly ending the hostage standoff, and spoke openly about Republican U.S. presidential candidate Ronald Reagan‘s ongoing behind-the-scenes project to prevent a hostage deal that might redound to his opponent’s electoral advantage.* His distaste for the hostage confrontation, as well as his westernized accoutrements, quickly set him at loggerheads with the revolution’s growing fundamentalist faction, and he was forced out of the foreign ministry in August 1980.

He was destined for the tragedy of revolutions devouring their own: arrested in April of 1982, his former associations with Khomeini availed him nothing in the face of a revolutionary tribunal that condemned him for “masterminding a plot to overthrow the Islamic Republic” and to assassinate Khomeini himself. Under torture, Ghotbzadeh confessed to planning a coup in a script right out of show trial central casting: “I am shamed before the nation. Free me or execute me.”

* This project succeeded so spectacularly that it’s still officially a kooky conspiracy theory in American political culture.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Iran,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Treason

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1896: Mirza Reza Kermani, assassin of the Shah

1 comment August 12th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1896,* Persian revolutionary Mirza Reza Kermani was hanged publicly for assassinating the Qajar Shah of Persia.

Shah since his gouty father kicked off in 1848, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar enjoys the distinction of being the third-longest ruler in the long history of Persian polities.

Only 64 years old at his death, Naser al-Din was young enough to have made a good run at the longevity runner-up 16th century Shah Tahmasp I;** however, his increasingly dogged resistance to reform and proclivity for gifting economic concessions to foreign firms bearing lucrative kickbacks eventually induced a young revolutinary named Mirza Reza Kermani to shoot Nasser al-Din dead at a shrine. It’s alleged that he had foregone a previous opportunity to murder the king in a public space frequented by Jews celebrating Passover, for fear that the regicide would be attributed to them and induce pogroms.

Naser al-Din’s sybaritic son Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar struggled equally to manage his restive subjects’ hunger for better statecraft, eventually (in 1906) leading to a constitutional era setting an a parliament at loggerheads with the Qajar princes.

* I’m attributing the date based on original reportage datelines in the Western press. There are some attributions to August 10 and to August 22 to be found.

** Number one is Shapur II, who was king for all of his 70 years in the fourth century.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Iran,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Persia,Public Executions,Revolutionaries

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1979: Major Bijan Yahyahi, prison torturer

1 comment April 13th, 2017 Headsman

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Courts went up in the very first days after the victory of the Iranian Revolution. These courts still exist nearing 40 years on but were oriented initially like many revolutionary tribunals towards clearing out hated servants of the old regime.

And like many revolutionary tribunals they developed a reputation for delivering justice more swift than measured — with one-sitting procedures where defendants faced hectoring judges and surprise charges without benefit of that “Western absurdity,” a defense counsel. For the Ayatollah Khomeini, revolutionary courts weren’t a probative exercise but a vehicle for delivering popular justice. “If the revolutionary courts did not prosecute them, the people would have gone on a rampage and killed them all,” he said of the courts’ targets.

This sentiment was echoed almost word for word by a spectator in this case, who (according to an April 13, 1979 New York Times profile) shouted at the judges during an adjournment that “if the court forgives him, the people won’t and will get him!” The major’s courtroom was packed with 200-plus spectators, many of whom could show the scars that the Shah’s torturers had left them.

Though he must have known he had no real hope at acquittal, Yahyahi fought his corner — for there was still the hope of a prison sentence, which his co-accused received, instead of death. Accused of abusing prisoners at Qasr Prison, Yahyahi protested that he had been forced to do it, that “the system was there, I didn’t create anything … I’m a nobody.”

“You wouldn’t understand it unless you put yourself in my shoes,” he explained unavailingly. “I asked for a transfer. I tried hard to get out. You must take that into consideration.”

A parade of witnesses described the torments of the Shah’s prison; Major Yahyahi’s rank at the facility was enough to condemn him for command responsibility, even absent witnesses who could link him personally this or that thrashing.

“It is not the individual who is on trial,” the mullah-judge presiding explained, repeatedly. “It is the regime.” The toppled regime, after all, had been convicted already.

Major Yahyahi’s trial (together with four others) consumed the court’s business on April the 12th. By that night Yahyahi was condemned to death; he was executed by firing squad the very next day, only one of ten people put to death around Iran on April 13, 1979.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Iran,Shot,Torture

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1984: Ten members of the Tudeh party

Add comment February 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1984, the Islamic Republic of Iran completed its destruction of the Tudeh party with ten executions.

In the 1940s, the Tudeh was Iran’s largest mass party and a fair bet to take power in the near future but state repression after Mossadegh was overthrown in 1953 had largely driven the Communist movement to the skulking margins.

Its fragments hung on underground, preparing and organizing for the proletarian revolution — an orientation that would leave the Tudeh entirely unprepared for the Iranian Revolution that really occurred. In fairness, few from Tehran to Moscow to Washington could read those tea leaves: who in the winter of the Cold War anticipated a great regional prize like Iran being captured by … the mullahs?

The Revolution released the once-banned party onto terra incognita as a minor outlet for leftward sentiment and perhaps a show of democratic good faith. But from the start it awkwardly existed on sufferance of an entirely incompatible regime. The venerable English journalist Robert Fisk, who covered the Iranian Revolution, filed a wry dispatch for the Times (Nov. 26, 1979) from the Tehran offices of Tudeh leader Nouredin Kianouri — unconvincingly trying to position his own movement within the events sweeping everyone along.

Tudeh is involved in “the radical struggle against imperialism”, and “the struggle for the reorganization of social life, especially for the oppressed strata of society” … and in so far as it is possible, Tudeh — Iran’s oldest political party — stands for the same things as Ayatollah Khomeini.

That, at least, is the theory: and Mr Kianouri holds to it bravely.

Tudeh demands a “popular front” government in Iran and Mr Kianouri professes to see little difference between this and Ayatollah Khomeini’s desire for national unity. “Popular Front”, however, is not an expression that has ever crossed the Imam’s lips and it is difficult to see how Iran’s new fundamentalist religious administration could form any cohesion with the materialist aims of Mr Kianouri’s scientific Marxism.

The article’s headline was “Ayatollah tolerates Communists until they become too popular,” but Tudeh never fulfilled its clause: it was blown out in the 1980 election, failing to win even a single seat, and maneuvered ineffectually for two years until a crackdown shattered its remnants with over 1,000 arrests early in 1983,* heavily targeting Tudeh-sympathizing army officers.** (The aforesaid Mr. Kianouri was forced to make a humiliating televised self-denunciation in 1983, although he surprisingly avoided execution.)

Those arrests culminated in a large show trial of 101 Tudeh principals in December 1983-January 1984, followed by smaller trials of lesser Tudeh figures in several cities over the months to come.

Eighty-seven Tudeh officials caught prison sentences ranging from eight months to life; these “lucky” ones, along with hundreds of other Tudeh adherents arrested in the years to come, would later be well-represented among the victims of Iran’s 1988 slaughter of political prisoners.

That left ten† reserved for execution on February 25 on charges compassing espionage, treason, and the weapons they had once naively stockpiled to fight against a monarchist coup. Notable among them were four high-ranking military officers: Col. Houshang Attarian, Col. Bezhan Kabiri, Col. Hassan Azarfar, and the chief catch, former Navy Commander Admiral Bahram Afzali.

Formally banned in Iran, the Tudeh party does still exists to this day, an exile shadow of its former glory.

* The U.S., officially abhorred of Iran, was in this period covertly aiding Tehran to raise funds to illegally bankroll Central American death squads — the Iran-Contra scandal. According to the American Tower Commission investigation of those events, the Tudeh were one of the lesser casualties this foreign policy misadventure when U.S. intelligence about the Tudeh network, largely obtained via a KGB defector, was passed to Tehran as a pot-sweetener: “In 1983, the United States helped bring to the attention of Tehran the threat inherent in the extensive infiltration of the government by the communist Tudeh Party and Soviet or pro-Soviet cadres in the country. Using this information, the Khomeini government took measures, including mass executions, that virtually eliminated the pro-Soviet infrastructure in Iran.” (See Appendix B here.)

** Iran at this moment was two years deep into its war with Saddam Hussein‘s Iraq, having in 1982 stalled out with a bloody and ineffectual offensive.

Other background of note: a different, Maoist party had in early 1982 launched a failed rising against the Islamic Republic.

† This doesn’t add up to 101. According to Tortured Confessions: Prisons and Public Recantations in Modern Iran, “when a Japanese correspondent asked why the numbers of those sentenced did not tally with those originally brought to trial, he [Mohammed Reyshahri] hedged, it was rumoured some had died during their interrogation.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Iran,Mass Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Torture,Treason

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2014: A.R. and N.J., a double hanging caught on video

3 comments February 15th, 2017 Headsman

The initials of the two men in the double hanging are all the identification I have found — but the spectacle of this February 15, 2014 public double hanging in Karaj amid fulsome praise for both God and the state security forces is a riveting horror.

Warning: Mature Content. Two men die in this video.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Iran,Mature Content,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines

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1912: Sikat-ul-Islam, by the Russians occupying Tabriz

2 comments January 1st, 2017 Headsman

On or very near this date in 1912,* Russian troops in the northern Iran city of Tabriz publicly hanged eight men for resisting the tsarist occupation — including the city’s highest mullah, Sikat-ul-Islam.

Russia’s invasion of Tabriz the previous month brought a bloody curtain down on the Persian constitutional revolution of 1905-1911.

Persia shook in those years with a brave but doomed movement that was simultaneously constitutionalist and parliamentarian against the rotting Qajar dynasty, and nationalist against foreign intervention (specifically by Russia and Great Britain) — and thus was resisted by monarchists and foreign powers alike.

Constitutionalists had been able to march on Tehran in 1909 and chase the hated Shah Mohammad Ali into Russian exile, leaving the Qajar throne in the hands of his 11-year-old son.** But it was the imperial powers who maintained the true vigor of reaction. At this same time, Russia — which had throughout the 19th century periodically peeled Caucasus real estate away from the Qajars — occupied Tabriz in 1909 to force that capital of Iranian Azerbaijan to submit to a monarchist siege. Its troops were only ever withdrawn to the outskirts, poised for the next two years to intervene again against the precarious constitutionalist state at a moment’s notice.

That moment arrived in 1911 when Tehran, advised by American Morgan Shuster, provoked St. Petersburg by attempting to collect taxes in the northern Russian sphere and to expropriate the property of the Shah’s brother. The Russians struck back by seizing Tabriz to install the rule of a pro-Russian warlord, also exploiting the occasion for a wide purge of constitutionalists who were invariably slated with the crime of attempting or advocating resistance — or as Russia preferred to phrase it, “extermination of the Russians,” as if the tsar’s military interposed in a foreign city constituted a put-upon minority enclave.

Shuster, whose ouster the Russians demanded (and by their intervention effected), later wrote a book about his experience that’s now in the public domain, The Strangling of Persia.

Serious street fighting commenced [December 21st], and continued for several days. The Acting Governor reported that the Russian troops indulged in terrible brutality, killing women and children in the streets and hundreds of other non-combatants … The superior numbers and the artillery of the Eussians finally conquered, and there then ensued a period of terrorism during which no Persian’s life or honor was safe …

On New Year’s Day, which was the 10th of Muharram, a day of great mourning and held sacred in the Persian religious calendar, the Russian Military Governor, who had hoisted Russian flags over the Government buildings at Tabriz, hung the Sikutu’l-Islam, who was the chief priest of Tabriz, two other priests, and five others, among them several high officials of the Provincial Government. As one British journalist put it, the effect of this outrage on the Persians was that which would be produced on the English people by the hanging of the Archbishop of Canterbury on Good Friday. From this time on the Russians at Tabriz continued to hang or shoot any Persian whom they chose to consider guilty of the crime of being a “Constitutionalist.” When the fighting there was first reported a prominent official of the Foreign Office at St. Petersburg, in an interview to the press, made the statement that Russia would take vengeance into her own hands until the “revolutionary dregs” had been exterminated.

“True humanity requires cruelty,” Russia explained, Orwellianly.



Two views of the Jan. 1, 1912 hanging of eight Persian constitutionalists in Tabriz. The gallows is gaily painted with Russian white, blue and red stripes.

As Shuster indicates, the shocking eightfold hanging this date would be followed by many more executions in the weeks to come as Russia (together with Britain in the south) buried the constitutional era for good. Our Sikat-ul-Islam’s “crime” set the tone: he acknowledged writing a letter to a friend in another northern city noting with approval that Tabriz was resisting the Russians and others ought to do likewise.

Another western friend of the Persian constitutionalists, British Orientalist Edward Granville Browne, published a volume with photographs of many such atrocities, The Reign of Terror at Tabriz. Browne’s pamphlet identifies all eight executed people by name; besides the headline cleric, they were:†

  • Ziya-ul-Ulama, a scientist who was also the son-in-law of a prominent constitutionalist judge
  • Muhammad-Kuli Khan, Ziya-ul-Ulama’s uncle who was seized when he attempted to plead for his nephew
  • Sadiq-ul-Mulk, a military engineer
  • Agha Muhammad Ibrahim
  • Shaikh Salim, a cleric known for fighting for the poor
  • Hasan and Kadir, two teenage brothers whose crime was that their father (already deceased) had been a prominent constitutionalist

* Multiple western newspaper reports of the time (e.g., London Times, Jan. 4, 1912) place the event on January 1 per the Gregorian calendar. It’s also noted and denounced) for its impolitic occurrence on the Shi’ite sacred day of Ashura, the 10th day of the month of Muharram on the Islamic lunar calendar; unfortunately, this complicates rather than clarifies the chronology, as different Hijri calendar converters translate 10 Muharram to different Gregorian dates.

I’m going here with January 1 based on the period’s reportage as supported by Shuster (in an excerpt in the post) as well as by Browne in Letters from Tabriz: The Suppression of the Iranian Constitutional Movement. (e.g., the chapter title equating 3 January 1912 with 12 Muharram) However, one can also find knowledgeable citations attributing the executions to December 31 or January 2.

** The refugee Shah would try and fail to return with Russian backing in 1910-11. He ended up dying in exile in Italy.

† Some additional details about these people is drawn from The Iranian Constitutional Revolution, 1906-1911, by Janet Afary.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Iran,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Mature Content,Occupation and Colonialism,Persia,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Russia,Wartime Executions

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1983: 26 in Tehran

Add comment August 20th, 2016 Headsman

London Times, Aug. 21, 1983:

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,Iran,Mass Executions,Women

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2013: Three publicly hanged in Karaj

Add comment August 18th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 2013, three young men were hanged in three different public locations around the Iranian city of Karaj. Photos of at least one of the executions were promulgated by official media.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Iran,Mature Content,Public Executions

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