1988: Elina Zlatanova, the last woman executed in Bulgaria

1 comment March 8th, 2019 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)


With special thanks to Andrey for contributing this fascinating insight into Bulgarian justice during the Communist era. -RC

In the early hours of March 8th, 1988 in the town cemetery of Sliven in Southeast Bulgaria, “Elina Zlatanova” was executed by a single handgun shot to the back of the head for the murder of her two young sons. Ironically, the execution fell on International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day — a semi-official and universally celebrated holiday in Bulgaria. The symbolism was presumably not lost on the authorities

Background.

We do not know the actual (birth) name of the woman executed on this day. Elina Zlatanova was the name given to her in the mid-1980s by the Communist authorities as a part of the so-called “Revival Process” — the forceful assimilation of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority. She was a midwife and her husband, “Martin Zlatanov” (another victim of the forced renaming), was a doctor in the hospital of Kardzhali, a town of 60,000 with an ethnically Turkish majority.

Her father was a onetime Member of Parliament (this was not as impressive as it may sound — most of the 400 members of the Communist rubberstamp parliament were chosen pretty much at random from loyal party cadres and, of course, they were the only candidates on the ballot). Her family was well respected in the city.

And her marriage was an unmitigated disaster. Zlatanova had to wait hand and foot on her husband and his unmarried brother, was not allowed to leave the house except for work or to go to the nearest shop and was denied contact with her family. The last straw probably came when she heard rumours that her husband had a mistress. These rumours were substantiated when, three months after the murder, he moved back into the apartment where his children died with his mistress and eventually married her, emigrating to Turkey where they apparently live to this day.

The crime.

On January 19th 1986, “Midwives Day” in Bulgaria, Elina expected to be taken to a social function by her husband, but instead he came in late and didn’t even acknowledge her. After he left for work the next morning (20.01.1986), she took a 20-litre can of diesel fuel (essential because of frequent power outages), poured it all over the apartment and set it on fire. Her 10-month-old son, Elin, was asphyxiated in his crib; his older brother Neven (age 4), tried to escape and Elina stabbed him with a kitchen knife. Her intention, apparently, was to also perish in the fire, but when the flames got too close, she got out of the blazing apartment.

Trial.

At first Elina claimed that an unknown man in blue work coveralls had broken in and set the place on fire, but soon afterwards the stab wounds on the older boy’s body were found and she made a full confession (Bulgarian police at the time were rather too good at extracting confessions, but there is next to no doubt about the circumstances of this case).

At the trial she pleaded guilty to all counts and reportedly fainted any time the boys were mentioned. Her lawyer, the late Reni Tzanova, attempted a defence of insanity and, given Elina’s behaviour in and out of court during the trial, it came as a shock when she was found to have been fully aware of her actions and fit to stand trial. Elina seemed resigned to her fate, her last words in court were “I could not have ever been a mother. I do not deserve to live, but, if you let me, I will try to atone for my guilt.” The guilty verdict, even given the extenuating circumstance of her marriage, was preordained, but it was still unusual for a woman to get the death penalty.

Execution.

At this time, commutations and pardons were handled by the State Council, or rather by the State Council’s judicial secretaries. They routinely commuted female death sentences, especially after 1978 when life in prison was also made part of the Bulgarian penal code (until then the penalty for aggravated murder was 10 to 15 years imprisonment or death). For whatever reason, they declined to intervene in this case.

An elaborate shooting mechanism had been installed in the execution chamber of Sofia Central Prison in 1982, but, then as now, the only prison for females in Bulgaria is the one in Sliven. This meant that any arrangements for the execution were left to the discretion of the prison director there, his deputies and the district prosecutor. At one or two in the morning of March 8, Elina was taken from her cell, put in a van and driven to a pre-dug pit on the grounds of the local cemetery. She probably was made to stand on the edge of the pit and a volunteer from the prison guards shot her once in the back of the head. There are no further details of this execution but in an earlier one, due to nerves and/or the unlit ground, the executioner did not have a precise aim and the woman’s heart was still beating 16 minutes after the shot and she finally expired as the officers present were arguing whether to allow for a coup de grâce.

Comment.

In Communist Bulgaria, murders and executions did not happen — at least, according to the official press. The information, therefore, is usually at least, somewhat based on rumours and speculations. In this case, the speculation of Andrey is that what ultimately cost Elina her life was the fact that she was Turkish and her crime took place in a predominantly Turkish city. By the late 1980s even the true believers could see that you cannot make Turks into Bulgarians at gunpoint, and so those who resisted assimilation (the vast majority of Bulgarian Turks) had to be driven out of Bulgaria.

The resistance often took a human toll — between 1983 and 1989 at least nine men were executed for various terrorist attacks and acts of armed resistance that left at least 16 dead and many wounded. Later, from May to August 1989, when borders were temporarily opened, 40% of the Bulgarian Turks (about 360,000 people) left their homes and sought refuge in Turkey in the so-called Grand Excursion (since they were on tourist visas). Quite a lot of those did not leave willingly, but their hand was forced through mass workplace firings, forced evictions from state-owned property, seizure of property and various other suppressive methods.

Elina’s case was not in any way political, but its notoriety among Kardzhali’s 50,000 Turks made the authorities think she should be made an example of “the awful majesty” of the state. The murder of the two boys was a horrific act which met four of the eight criteria for aggravated murder in the Bulgarian penal code, any one of which could result in a death sentence — and yet other similar murders did not result in execution. Once Elina’s fate was known, many among those who knew about the case (who were predominantly Turkish) would have been aware of this double standard. Essentially, Andrey speculates that her execution was a part of a campaign of terror, waged by the Communist Bulgarian state against its Turkish population, designed to either to cow into submission or drive out in terror those who resisted the “Revival process”. Around 200,000 thousand didn’t return after the “Grand Excursion”, and many of those who are still in Bulgaria have deep mistrust of the authorities, so unfortunately this campaign may have been successful.

Executions of male prisoners in Sofia Central Prison.

The shooting mechanism referred to above consisted of two Makarov pistols with their handles and triggers removed, placed on two separate adjustable stands. Instead of a traditional trigger, they were wired so that the firing pins were activated electrically. They were operated by flipping a switch and pressing a button. The second gun was on a separate circuit and was not supposed to fire unless a sensor did not detect the report of the other gun within a set amount of seconds.

Usually guards burst into the cell of the condemned prisoner around 22:30 in the evening, and apparently they almost always informed him (between showers of expletives) that his pardon has been granted, helping him gather his personal belongings for transfer to another cell or prison — even though most prisoners were aware of their impending doom, the charade was kept until he was pinioned.

After certain preparations, the condemned was lead down a corridor to a small room, which on two sides had crimson floor length curtains instead of walls. The prisoner was secured in a fixed chair with his back around 60 cm from one of the “curtain” sides, his verdict was read to him and the guards and officials left the room, leaving the prisoner looking at the mirrored wall directly in front of him (which was, in fact, a one-way mirror). The curtains were designed to conceal the gun nozzle from the condemned and the most credible account has two guns (main and spare) on two separate stands in the corners behind the prisoner, aiming for the temples. There are differing accounts about the procedure, as well as over-elaboration, which is one of the reasons that this mechanism was seldom, if ever, used. Interviews with at least a dozen people who worked in the prison at the time revealed that none had firsthand accounts of executions performed with the machine, while some had vivid recollections how Capt. or Lt. so-and-so “blew X’s brains out” with his pistol

The last execution in the prison took place on November 4th, 1989, six days before the fall of the Communist regime. In 1991 the mechanism was still there, but by 1994 it had vanished (it is presumed that some of the guards decided to supplement their salaries by selling it for scrap). Since the death penalty was not formally abolished until 1998, had the moratorium been lifted, any executions would have taken place in the “traditional” manner. The death chamber is used as a storage room today, with very little left to remind of its former use.

On this day..

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1988: Sek Kim Wah, thriller

Add comment December 9th, 2018 Headsman

Thirty years ago today, Singapore hanged Sek Kim Wah for his “thrilling” home invasion murders.

A sociopathic 19-year-old army conscript, Sek had got a taste for blood in June 1983 by strangling a bookie and his mistress to prevent them identifying him after a robbery. It was only days after his unrequited crush had given him the cold shoulder; he’d seized the rejection as license to give rein to his darkest desires. “I was frustrated. I like someone to exercise control over me, to care and look after me. But all they are interested in is money. Since everybody is busy about money, I would get it by hook or by crook and the more the merrier.”

Those robbery-murders he got away with in the moment.

On July 23, he bid for an encore performance by forcing his way into a split-level bungalow armed with an M16 pinched from the Nee Soon Camp armory. With him was another 19-year-old, Nyu Kok Meng. It was Nyu’s first crime, and events would prove that he and Sek had made some unwarranted assumptions about one another.

After forcing businessman Robert Tay Bak Hong and his wife Annie Tay to withdraw bank funds for them, Sek set about replaying his previous crime script by eliminating the witnesses, strangling and bludgeoning the couple as well as their 27-year-old Filipina maid Jovita Virador.

Nyu heard the bashing sounds from another room, where he held the M16 on the couple’s 10-year-old daughter Dawn, and Dawn’s tutor Madam Tang So Ha — and he was aghast when he investigated the commotion. Nyu had intended only to steal money, not to hurt anyone. He took his two charges under his impromptu protection, and because of it they both survived to give evidence against him.

“Suddenly, the male Chinese who was holding the long gun rushed into our room and locked the door behind him,” said Dawn.

Nyu refused to let Sek into the room. Sek then decided to leave the house in Mr Tay’s Mercedes car. Nyu handed over his identity card to Madam Tang, and asked her to convey a message to his parents to buy a coffin for him, as he planned to commit suicide after releasing her and Dawn. (Singapore Straits Times, excerpting Guilty as Charged: 25 Crimes that have shaken Singapore since 1965)

Nyu pointed the gun at his head and pulled the trigger … “but nothing happened,” he said. “Frustrated, I put the rifle down.” He fled on Sek’s motorbike as the two souls he saved ran to a neighbor’s house for help. That night, he escaped, temporarily, to Malaysia.

Nevertheless, his clemency — or his stupidity, as Sek called it — saved his neck; he caught a life sentence plus caning.

Sek would not be so lucky and he seemed to know and revel in it from the moment of his capture, mugging obnoxiously for the papers. “I’ve always wanted to die on the gallows,” he exulted at his sentencing. “It must be thrilling to be hanged.” He’d used that same word — “thrilling” — to describe the experience of committing murder.

On this day..

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1988: Dmitri Polyakov, Cold War spy

Add comment March 15th, 2016 Headsman

Although it would not be publicly known until two years later, the retired Soviet Gen. Dmitri Polyakov was on March 15, 1988 executed for treason.

A World War II artillerist, Polyakov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was a military intelligence officer working as an embassy attache when he made contact with American agents in New York in 1961. For the next quarter-century — across assignments to Burma, India, the U.S., and back in Moscow — he would ship to the CIA and FBI some of its choicest morsels of the Cold War.

“Polyakov was the jewel in the crown,” former CIA chief James Woolsey lamented of his loss. Polyakov-supplied documents underscoring the extent of Russia’s split with China have been credited with spurring Richard Nixon’s overtures to Beijing.

The spy code-named Bourbon, Roam, and Top Hat had idiosyncratic motivations; he was not an ideological true believer like a Sorge nor a man afflicted by demons like a Vetrov. He accepted only a little bit of money from his handlers, mostly to support an innocuous wordworking hobby.

This Russian article indulges a variety of hypotheses — contempt for Khrushchev, the death of a son, an appetite for risk-taking — but nothing his U.S. contacts could learn of him rebutted the presentation he made of himself as a Russian patriot chagrined at the prospect that the corrupt Communist state could win the Cold War.

His revelations did much to check that possibility.

Polyakov retired as a general in 1980, having operated under the Kremlin’s nose for a phenomenally long period of time. (His U.S. contacts made sure to feed him some career-advancing secrets, too.) But he was betrayed in the 1980s by the USSR’s own moles, Robert Hanssen and Aldrich Ames and arrested in 1986.

His fate, imposed by the Military Collegium of the Soviet Supreme Court, thereafter was a mystery to his former handlers. Two months after his secret execution, U.S. President Ronald Reagan sought Polyakov’s pardon or his exchange for a captured Soviet mole at his May-June 1988 arms control summit with Mikhail Gorbachev. The solicitation was politely deferred.

On this day..

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1988: Adrian Lim and his two wives

2 comments November 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1988, a trio that had once formed an abusive family were all hanged in Singapore for their shocking ritual murders.



Top to bottom: Lim, Tan Mui Choo, and Hoe Kah Hong.

The Toa Payoh murders stunned Singapore in early 1981, when the brutalized bodies of a nine-year-old girl and a ten-year-old boy turned up in that district of the city-state.

A literal trail of blood led police from the second victim to a nearby seventh-floor flat cohabitated by a self-proclaimed spirit medium named Adrian Lim and his “holy wives” Tan Mui Choo and Hoe Kah Hong. In the apartment was a bevy skin-crawling incriminating evidence, like papers with the victims’ names written down, hairs later matched to the kids, and spatters of blood.

So this wasn’t a case so much for crime scene investigators as for psychologists.

Eschewing the forgettable life of a mere cable TV bill collector, a thirtysomething Adrian Lim had cultivated a side business in quack spiritualism in the early Seventies. He soon found this rewarding scam, in which troubled bar hostesses seeking personal guidance could be induced to pay him for a holistic regimen of eggs, needles, prayer to miscellaneous deities, and (often as not) sex with their “healer”, sufficient to support his lifestyle without further remuneration from the broadcast industry, so he went full time. And then he went right around the bend.

Even as a 9-to-5 desk jockey, Lim had already reeled in one depressed young woman as his live-in lover and business partner and willing enabler of Lim’s carnal con artistry. Lim did not scruple to pimp her out as a prostitute. This was Tan Mui Choo.

Hoe Kah Hong fell into Lim’s clutches a few years later, and although it was that young woman’s own mother who brought her in for Lim’s hocus-pocus, the charismatic witch doctor soon turned her against her family and moved her into the place, too. He eliminated Hoe’s husband by conning him into an electroshock treatment that Lim used to shock him dead.

This twisted family’s run of good luck and absurdly gullible customers came to an end late in 1980, when a cosmetics salesgirl whom Lim had drugged and raped (sometimes the spirits need a chemical assist with these things) started blackmailing him — and shopped him when he didn’t pay enough.

Under a pending sex-assault investigation, Lim conceived some bizarre plan to draw police attention away (or induce the goddess Kali to help him out of the pickle) by … murdering children. Makes sense, right?

It made enough sense to his holy wives to get them to help drug little Agnes Ng Siew Hock on January 24, 1981, help Adrian Lim rape her, help smother her with pillows, and help smear her blood on the apartment’s little sacrificial shrine. Two weeks later, they did much the same (less the rape) to Ghazali bin Marzuki. They were taken into custody the very next day.

While there’s little doubt about whether, the little matter of why was the topic on all Singapore’s lips.

In an eight-week trial that kept the public riveted with the ghastly and/or ludicrous particulars of the medium’s operation, dueling psychiatrists went front and center and measured out competing takes on the prisoners’ respective culpability. In he end, the draught was half-full for all three.

The trial’s “gruesome accounts of sexual perversion, the drinking of human blood, spirit possession, exorcism and indiscriminate cruelty” (Singapore Straits Times) made Lim a Bundy-esque object of public hatred; even others condemned to death refused to associate with him. He was the subject of the first feature-length domestic Singaporean film in English, 1992’s The Medium.

On this day..

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1988: Stanislaw Czabanski, the last in Poland

Add comment April 21st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1988, in its last full year of Communist rule, Poland carried out its last hanging.

Stanislaw Czabanski, who killed a woman in Tarnow, was hanged in Krakow’s Montelupich Prison.

According to this 1996 survey of worldwide death penalty trends by British death penalty abolitionist Peter Hodgkinson,

In Poland, courts of regular jurisdiction rendered altogether 318 final death sentences between 1956 and 1988 (the last full year of communist rule), that is, on average, 10 death sentences per year … Seven death penalty sentences were passed on average each year in the 1960s; this number almost doubled in the 1970s. The decade of the 1980s was marked by the emergence of Solidarity, the first independent civic body ever in existence in a communist country, by the imposition of Martial Law in December of 1981, and by the repressive political climate in the subsequent years. However, one notices a pronounced decrease in the number of death sentences compared to the previous decade. Altogether sixty such sentences were passed between 1980 and 1988, an average of 7.7 per year … Jaruzelski‘s military regime used more carrots than sticks when dealing with the political opposition.

The contemporary artistic reflection of elites’ growing concern over capital punishment was the 1989 Krzysztof Kieslowski flick critiquing the death penalty in his Dekalog series.

Though Poland continued to hand out death sentences until the mid-Nineties, a moratorium on actual executions took hold.

One can, of course, never say what shall be for all time; while death penalty abolition was a condition for Poland’s European Union membership, the conservative-nationalist Kaczynski brothers have openly mooted reintroducing capital punishment.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,Poland

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