2000: Ahmad Ismail Uthman Saleh and Ahmad Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Naggar, renditioned

Add comment February 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 2000, Egypt hanged two Islamic militants whom it had been torturing for months. They were signal early victims of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency’s program — more (in)famous after the September 11 freakout but in fact long predating it — of “extraordinary rendition”.

“Rendering” — chill word — involves kidnapping a target and transferring him to some other country, and it enables the state(s) in question to sidestep strictures at both ends of the pipe. When first authorized by U.S. President Bill Clinton in 1993, the proposed kidnapping of a militant was endorsed by Vice President Al Gore in these words:

That’s a no-brainer. Of course it’s a violation of international law, that’s why it’s a covert action. The guy is a terrorist. Go grab his ass.

Over the course of the 1990s, quibbles about international law would fade from the discussion, and “renderings” became routine, albeit still secretive.

“The fact is,” wrote former National Security Council counterterrorism official Richard Clarke, “President Clinton approved every snatch that he was asked to review. Every snatch CIA, Justice, or Defense proposed during my tenure as [Counterterrorism Security Group] chairman, from 1992 to 2001, was approved.”

Nor did they remain merely tools to make an extra-legal “arrest” for the benefit of American courts — as was the case when Gore purposed to “grab his ass.”

According to Stephen Grey’s history of the rendition program, Ghost Plane, the CIA by by the mid-1990s had a growing presence in Europe, particularly the Balkans as Islamic militants began congregating. With the 1998 onset of the Kosovo War, Langley moved from watching to … rendering.

And in this case, that meant grabbing asses for Egypt, where those asses would certainly be tortured.

Members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad, including the two men whose hangings occasion this post, Ahmad Ismail Uthman Saleh and Ahmad Ibrahim al-Sayyid al-Naggar, were kidnapped from Tirana, Albania in June 1998. They were then blindfolded, loaded onto a private plane, and flown to Egypt where they vanished for many months into the rough hands of its state security organ. Naggar, according to a lengthy November 20, 2001 Wall Street Journal story by Andrew Higgins and Christopher Cooper,*

was nabbed in July 1998 by SHIK on a road outside of town. He, too, was blindfolded and spirited home on a CIA plane. In complaints in his confession and to his defense lawyer, Mr. Abu-Saada, Mr. Naggar said his Egyptian interrogators regularly applied electrical shocks to his nipples and penis.

Mr. Naggar’s brother, Mohamed, said in an interview that he and his relatives also were — and continue to be — harassed and tortured by Egyptian police. He said he had suffered broken ribs and fractured cheekbones. “They changed my features,” Mohamed Naggar said, touching his face.

Naggar also complained of being hung from his limbs and locked in a cell knee-deep in filthy water. One of four Tirana militants captured in this operation, Naggar’s torture would yield crucial evidence for the 1999 “Returnees from Albania” mass trial,** and indeed his confessions still remain an essential primary text on the movement of Islamic extremists in the 1990s.

As for Saleh,

in August [1998], Albanian security agents grabbed him outside the children’s park. During two months of detention in Egypt, he was suspended from the ceiling of his cell and given electrical shocks, he told his lawyer.

Both these men were executed on February 23, 2000, in connection with terrorism-related death sentences that had been handed down in absentia prior to their kidnappings in Albania. All of the nine death sentences issued by the Returnees from Albania trial were applied to absent defendants, notably including Al Qaeda bigwig Ayman al-Zawahiri — a man who himself perhaps owes a large measure of his radicalization to Egyptian torturers.

CIA Director George Tenet testified in 2002 that his agency “had rendered 70 terrorists to justice” all told prior to September 11, 2001 (source). Most of the known third-country renditions of that period went to Egypt.

* As an index of the historical moment, it’s editorially interesting that this 3,600-word investigation ten weeks after 9/11 chooses to give its last word to an Egyptian state spokesman.

Egyptian presidential spokesman Nabil Osman said of such mass prosecutions: “Justice is swift there, and it provides a better deterrent. The alternative is to have cases of terrorism in this country dangling between heaven and earth for years.”

Mr. Osman brushed off torture claims by members of the Tirana cell, without commenting directly on their validity. Egypt permits alleged torture victims to seek remedies in civil court, he said. Members of the Tirana cell, however, have been held incommunicado with no way to file suit.

“Forget about human rights for a while,” Mr. Osman said. “You have to safeguard the security of the majority.”

This article was published right around the time the CIA captured Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, who was himself soon rendered into Egyptian hands so that he could be tortured into “confessing” a spurious link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda; the “safeguarders” then shamelessly cited this absurd product of the rendition program as justification for the approaching Iraq debacle.

** Despite the nickname, not all “returnees” had been captured from Albania; others had been taken from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and other countries. There were also 64 people charged in absentia.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Albania,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Egypt,Execution,Hanged,History,Terrorists,Torture,USA

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1963: Four CIA saboteurs in Cuba

Add comment November 12th, 2017 Headsman

Cuba executed thirteen people in the course of this week in 1963 as CIA agents. This date marked the middle group, as detailed in the Nov. 13, 1963 New York Times:

HAVANA, Nov. 12 (UPI) — Four more Cubans were executed by firing squads today as “agents” of the United States Central Intelligence Agency.

Five other Cuban [sic] accused as “CIA agents” were executed last Friday.

The victims today were identified as Antonio Cobelas Rodriguez, Orlando Sanchez Saraza, Juan M. Milian Rodriguez and Jose S. Bolanos Morales.

An official announcement said that they had been captured while trying to sneak ashore from an armed boat that sailed from Marathon, in the Florida Keys, on an undisclosed date.

On this day..

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1986: Adolf Tolkachev, the Billion-Dollar Spy

Add comment September 24th, 2016 Headsman

The U.S.S.R. executed alleged* U.S. mole Adolf Tolkachev on this date in 1986.

Tolkachev (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) had grown up during the Stalin years — background he would cite by way of explaining his subsequent actions against the Soviet state and its “impassable, hypocritical demagoguery.” (His wife had been orphaned by the purges of the 1930s.)

Inspired, he said, by the dissidence of writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974) and bomb engineer Andrei Sakharov (prevented from leaving the Soviet Union to collect his 1975 Nobel Peace Prize), Tolkachev in the late 1970s boldly made contact** with U.S. intelligence officers at the Moscow petrol station where they fueled their cars. He immediately became one of the Americans’ most valuable assets — literally so; the 2015 book about him is titled The Billion Dollar Spy.

Tolkachev’s day job for a top-secret aviation laboratory gave him access to priceless documents on the development of the Soviet aircraft, radar, and weapons guidance and using a James Bond-esque miniature Pentax supplied him by Langley, Tolkachev snapped photos of those secrets for delivery to the Americans. It’s claimed — this is the reason for the billion-dollar stuff — that Tolkachev’s tips drove research and development in American military technology in vastly more effective directions.

The spy himself was paid for his risks in rubles and in a U.S. escrow fund pending his eventual defection.

But his last payment turned out to be a bullet, courtesy of betrayal by CIA turncoat Edward Lee Howard and/or that bane of spies Aldrich Ames.

* The date is supplied courtesy of a September 25, 1986 Politburo document referring to Tolkachev’s execution “yesterday”.

Note however that the prevailing Tolkachev story as presented in this post is disputed by CIA historian Benjamin Fischer, who has argued that “Adolf Tolkachev” was a KGB prank on its opposite number in the Cold War’s Spy vs. Spy game.

** Tolkachev really had to insist upon himself to his American handlers: the first four times he approached US embassy personnel with overtures he was rebuffed or ignored as a probable Soviet plant.

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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.

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1985: Vladimir Vetrov, Farewell

Add comment January 23rd, 2013 Headsman

This date in 1985 spelled farewell for the KGB agent Vladimir Vetrov … code-named Farewell by the western handlers to whom he passed Soviet secrets.

Vladimir Vetrov was a career officer in Soviet intelligence who grew disgruntled* and in 1980 went to work for the West.

And he was no ordinary spy. Think Aldrich Ames, to the power of ten.

Vladimir Vetrov oversaw the entire KGB directorate charged with a critical program: Line X, which surveilled western R&D and passed its fruits back to Mother Russia. In the 1960s and 1970s, Line X stole jaw-dropping volumes of military, computer, and industrial advances.

And by 1980, all that information passed through Vetrov’s hands for distribution within the USSR. His betrayal blew the entire thing to smithereens.

When he turned, Vetrov gave 3,000 pages of top-secret documents to his French handlers, information which also made its way to the CIA. “The Soviet military and civil sectors were in large measure running their research on that of the West, particularly the United States,” recalls the gobsmacked American defense advisor who reviewed the file. “Our science was supporting their national defense.”

Book CoverSergei Kostin calls his book about the man Farewell: The Greatest Spy Story of the Twentieth Century, and Vetrov has surely got a claim on that title. (It’s either Vetrov or Sorge when it comes to the annals of Soviet espionage.)

The Farewell dossier exposed the entirety of the Soviet technology-stealing infrastructure, with a couple of enormous consequences.

One, it influenced Cold War strategy in the West, supporting the Reagan administration’s view that the Soviet economy (absent its stolen technological advances) could be pushed into collapse.

And two, it facilitated Langley’s most spectacular counterespionage coup, brainchild of Gus Weiss. Rather than smashing up the Line X network, the CIA turned the enormous (and in Moscow, trusted) apparatus against its creators.

By feeding Soviet agents promising but subtly flawed technology, the Americans infiltrated sabotage points into the USSR — a Trojan Horse for the information age. In 1982, software running the Soviet Trans-Siberian Pipeline allegedly escalated gas pressure fatally on the Urengoy-Surgut-Chelyabinsk pipeline, triggering an explosion so large (three kilotons) that some foreign monitoring stations initially suspected a nuclear detonation. Weiss just told them not to worry.

Meanwhile, goes the story (and one must discount appropriately here for triumphalist spin), other crapware started failing elsewhere in the Soviet Union. “Pseudo-software disrupted factory output. Flawed but convincing ideas on stealth, attack aircraft and space defense made their way into Soviet ministries.” Suddenly, the Russians couldn’t know which Line X acquisitions were dependable and which were time bombs.


From Farewell, a 2009 film.

Vetrov’s candle burned bright, but brief: he stabbed his mistress (non-fatally) during a drunken argument in 1982, then stabbed to death the man who knocked on his window to intervene. Vetrov got a trip to Siberia, but while serving his time, he casually revealed that he’d authored maybe the most spectacular inside betrayal of Russian intelligence in the 20th century. He was duly recalled for a new trial and, eventually, a bullet in the head in Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison. Even in the post-communist state, he’s still considered a villain in his homeland.

More about Vladimir Vetrov and the Farewell dossier in this BBC Witness podcast.

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* Vetrov didn’t betray the Kremlin for money. Sergei Kostin believes it was professional frustration — the revenge of the underappreciated nebbish whose merits couldn’t break through the nepotism ceiling at the clubby KGB. However — though the explanations are not necessarily inconsistent — Vetrov also wrote a pre-execution “Confession of a Traitor” savaging the Soviet system: “My only regret is that I was not able to cause more damage to the Soviet Union and render more service to France.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Russia,Shot,Spies,Treason,USSR

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1961: Four for the assassination of Rafael Trujillo

2 comments November 18th, 2011 Headsman

Fifty years ago today, four men were shot for the ajusticiamiento — “execution” — of longtime Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo.

El Jefe had run his half of Hispaniola for more than thirty years, mirroring his contemporary Stalin for creepy personality cult — giant signs reading “God and Trujillo”; the capital city renamed after him — and dictatorial ruthlessness. Except, of course, that Trujillo was violently anti-communist. He’s the very man for whom U.S. Secretary of State Cordell Hull coined the memorable (and endlessly recyclable) quip, “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he is our son-of-a-bitch.” The guy could even get away with disappearing people from New York City.

The Mario Vargas Llosa novel Feast of the Goat revolves around the Trujillo assassination.

But by the last decade of Trujillo’s reign, Dominicans were increasingly tired of his being their son-of-a-bitch.

An abortive 1959 invasion by Dominican exiles was defeated militarily but helped spawn the dissident 14th of June movement — which naturally met with state repression, most emblematically the 1960 murder of the Mirabal sisters. World opinion turned against Trujillo, and even Washington, chastened by the recent Cuban Revolution, feared that their son-of-a-bitch was becoming counterproductive.

So the CIA had actually collaborated with the plot against him hatched among other Dominican elites, providing guns, money, and its all-important blessing. “From a purely practical standpoint, it will be best for us … if the Dominicans put an end to Trujillo before he leaves this island,” the spy agency’s local station chief reported to his superiors late in 1960,

If I were a Dominican, which thank heaven I am not, I would favor destroying Trujillo as being the first necessary step in the salvation of my country and I would regard this, in fact, as my Christian duty. If you recall Dracula, you will remember it was necessary to drive a stake through his heart to prevent a continuation of his crimes. I believe sudden death would be more humane than the solution of the Nuncio who once told me he thought he should pray that Trujillo would have a long and lingering illness.

On May 30, 1961 (Spanish link), Trujillo’s car was ambushed on Avenida George Washington outside “Ciudad Trujillo” by members of his own armed forces, and riddled with gunfire. When the bullets stopped flying, Rafael Trujillo’s body was a bloody heap on the asphalt. Today, the spot is marked by a memorial plaque — commemorating not Trujillo, but the men who killed him.

That did for the dictator, but the larger aspiration of regime change experienced a little blowback.

Rather than a new dawn of liberalism and human rights, Trujillo’s son Ramfis seized power and vengefully went after his father’s killers. The Dominican Republic became prey thereafter to that familiar cycle of military coups and unstable juntas, leading a few years later to outright American occupation.

But before Trujillo fils was pushed out of the job, he had six of the assassins hunted down: two were killed resisting capture, and the other four put to death by firing squad on this date — their remains allegedly thrown to the sharks (pdf) after their executions.

There’s a BBC interview from spring 2011 with a surviving co-conspirator, Gen. Antonio Imbert, here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Dominican Republic,Execution,History,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Shot,Soldiers

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1963: Four Cubans as CIA spies

Add comment November 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1963, the Cuban government shot four of its citizens as “counterrevolutionaries” and CIA spies — capping a week that had seen 13 such executions in all at Havana’s Cabana Fortress.

This date’s batch consisted of (per the Nov. 15, 1963 New York Times) Argimiro Fonseca Fernandez, Wilfredo Alfonso Ibanez, Israel Rodriguez Lima and Erasmo Machin Garcia; they were supposed to have scouted spots around the island for a potential landing of invading exiles. For some reason, Cuba was paranoid about the possibility.

Four others — Antonio Cobelas Rodriguez, Orlando Sanchez Saraza, Juan M. Milian Rodriguez and Jose S. Bolanos Morales, according to the Nov. 13 New York Times — had been shot on Nov. 12 for similar crimes; they had supposedly attempted to make an armed landing on a boat out of Florida. Five others (whose names I have not located) were reported executed on Nov. 8.

On this day..

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1977: Atnafu Abate, Mengistu’s last rival

Add comment November 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1977,* Ethiopian dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam eliminated one of his last political rivals with the execution of Atnafu Abate.

The men’s relationship had long been complex and unclear; Abate backed the Derg’s “Black Saturday” mass executions in 1974, and sometimes lined up as Mengistu’s ally over the succeeding years as part of the Derg military junta.

At the same time, there were rumors that things between Mengistu and Atnafu were so tense that they pulled guns at meetings.

Atnafu’s absence (by accident or design) during an early 1977 purge within the Derg left the conservative and Orthodox Atnafu officially second-in-command, and unofficially the last real or potential rival to Mengistu.

His elimination was widely expected, though exactly why it went down, when it went down has never been transparent. Mengistu’s grip on the country was already secure enough to have launched the Red Terror.

The New York Times‘ Nov. 15 report of this development captures a bit of the Alice-in-Wonderland political logic evidently at work.

The Ethiopian press agency, which made the announcement, also released what amounted to a six-page indictment listing “twelve specific antirevolutionary crimes,” and “five specific arch-reactionary stands” attributed to Colonel Atnafu, who had served as vice chairman of the provisional military administrative council.

The statement charged Colonel Atnafu with opposing “proclamations intensifying the revolution,” manifesting “a feudal arrogance while on visits to various provinces,” and consorting after working hours with what the statement called riff-raff of the aristocracy and military bourgeois, as well as “extremely dangerous imperialist agents — especially CIA agents.”

The statement also charged that “he had repeatedly confessed at meetings that he did not believe in the ideology of the working class.”

But perhaps the section of the statement that most accurately reflects the bewildering tone of political rhetoric and chaos in Addis Ababa, was one that charged that the proof of Colonel Atnafu’s “reactionary stands” was his placing of Ethiopian national interests before ideological considerations.

“At this time,” said the document, “when workers, farmers, the men in uniform and all the toiling masses are intensifying the revolutionary struggle guided by the principles of Marxism-Leninism, Lieut. Col. Atnafu has been antagonistic to the idea and has instead by way of dilatory tactic, argued that the interest of Ethiopia should be put before ideology.”

* As reported by the London Times gloss (articles Nov. 14 and Nov. 15) of a state radio report given in Ethiopia on Nov. 13. “A revolutionary measure” was the official euphemism for the action taken against Atnafu Abate.

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

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1976: Valery Sablin, Hunt for Red October inspiration

4 comments August 3rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1976, the real-life Soviet political officer whose naval mutiny inspired Tom Clancy’s Cold War thriller The Hunt for Red October was shot in Moscow for treason.

No, unlike his fictional counterpart Marko Ramius (Sean Connery, in the 1990 cinema adaptation excerpted above), Valery Sablin didn’t make it to the West.

But the real Valery Sablin wasn’t trying to make it.

Sablin was the political officer aboard the submarine-killer Storozhevoy. He was also a dedicated Leninist incensed at the notoriously corrupt gerontocracy of the Leonid Brezhnev era.

When he led his mutiny in Riga, his plan was to take the Storozhevoy to St. Petersburg and, Aurora-like, sound the tocsin for a Soviet Tea Party to restore the ideals of the Revolution.

Basically, Sablin had the exact opposite intent of his literary offspring.

This being the 1970s, when figuring out what the devil was happening in the black box of the USSR constituted its own academic discipline, the incident was misinterpreted in the western media — but understandably so.


View Larger Map

The sea route from Riga to St. Petersburg begins in a westerly direction, towards Sweden, and the spectacle of Soviet fighters turning back a vessel steaming for Gotland (combined, of course, with the natural susceptibility of the western audience to the notion) suggested that the mutineers had aimed not at revolution, but at defection.

Under the headline “Newspaper Reports Soviet Ship Mutiny” sourced to Agence France-Presse and datelined Stockholm, Jan. 22, the Jan. 23, 1976 Washington Post reported:

Crewmen on board a Soviet coast guard vessel in the Baltic mutinied and tried to sail the ship into Swedish territorial waters in November, the evening newspaper Expressen said today.

Citing foreign visitors recently returned from Riga, the paper said the mutiny took place Nov. 7 after celebrations in Riga marking the Soviet revolution.

The paper said a Soviet submarine and a number of helicopters forced the ship to return to Riga.

This was the version of the story that aspiring spy novelist Tom Clancy encountered. In his reworking, it became the bold (and successful) defection of a state-of-the-art Soviet submarine and its deft commander … effected, of course, with a little help from the derring-do of the spooks at Langley.

Moscow was pleased to let this be the version that people heard, to the extent they heard anything at all of the incident. Though not exactly flattering, it was much less threatening than the potential storyline of “Soviet officers are so fed up with party corruption that they’re trying to revolt”.

Not until 1990 did the real story get out.

It’s pretty safe to say that the Valery Sablin who died this day would not have had a lot of sympathy for Marko Ramius,* and still less for the Reaganite writer who turned Sablin’s deed inside-out and made it the cornerstone of his own personal mint.

Trust the fact that history will judge events honestly and you will never have to be embarrassed for what your father did. On no account ever be one of those people who criticise but do not follow through their actions. Such people are hypocrites — weak, worthless people who do not have the power to reconcile their beliefs with their actions. I wish you courage, my dear. Be strong in the belief that life is wonderful. Be positive and believe that the Revolution will always win.

-Sablin’s last letter to his son

Russian speakers may enjoy this documentary about the Sablin mutiny.

* Another inversion: in order to make his break for the Free World, the fictional (and, significantly, ethnically Lithuanian) Ramius murders the ethnically Russian political officer, Ivan Putin, assigned to his ship; the real Sablin was himself that zealous political officer, and imprisoned the ship’s captain in the course of the mutiny.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lithuania,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,USSR

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1961: Patrice Lumumba

3 comments January 17th, 2009 Sarah Owocki

No brutality, no torture has ever made me plead for mercy, because I prefer to die with my head up, with unshakable faith and deep confidence in the destiny of my country, rather than live in submission and spurning of scared principles.

-Patrice Lumumba’s last letter to his wife

One person’s “murdered under controversial circumstances” is another person’s “executed.” By most unbiased accounts, Patrice Lumumba was both.

A strident anti-colonialist caught in the most inflammatory of Cold War power struggles, Lumumba remains a controversial figure.

In 1956, Patrice Lumumba was a mail clerk in Belgian Congo recently out of prison for embezzlement of post office funds. Though previously involved with the Liberal Party of Belgium, a colonialist political party, after prison, he helped found the Mouvement National Congolais, a pro-independence national party (an important distinction at the time, as most pro-independence parties were at least partially tribal in nature).

Convicted in 1959 of inciting an anti-colonial riot and sentenced to 6 months in prison, Lumumba was released early as Congo won its independence and the MNC became an important political force. Just how important became apparent the following June, when the 35-year-old Lumumba was ratified as the newly independent Congo’s first prime minister.

From criminal to high statesman in just over a year, Lumumba took his new power in stride, and watched in disgust as the deposed King Baudouin of Belgium attended the new nation’s first Independence Day celebration, and before a fawning international media condescendingly congratulated Belgium’s colonial beneficence to its former slave plantation.

Struck from the day’s official celebrations in favor of the the lukewarm exhortations of the new President Kasa-Vubu, Lumumba found time on the day’s unofficial program. Strident, emotional, and unabashed in its anticolonialist, nationalist, and pan-Africanist bent, Lumumba’s famous speech was roundly criticized by the domestic and foreign press, but well-received by the crowd and ultimately delivered directly to history.

Lumumba’s tenure as prime minister was short-lived, however.

Mere weeks after independence, a mutiny on army bases broke out in reaction to Lumumba’s ill-fated decision to leave the military out of a government pay raise. The resulting anarchy quickly spread throughout the country, and the province of Katanga, with the support of King Baudouin and powerful mining companies, declared independence. As United Nations troops failed to quell the situation, Lumumba appealed to the Soviets, whose intervention succeeded only in causing Lumumba’s political support to crumble.

Kasa-Vuba dismissed Lumumba in September; in response, Lumumba declared Kasa-Vuba deposed — quite illegally, as it happens — and appealed to the Senate, from whom he managed to win a vote of confidence.

At this point, in the heat of the Cold War, things got interesting.

Deposed again, this time in a CIA-endorsed coup, Lumumba found himself under house arrest and under the protection of UN troops. Not certain whether to trust the rule of the various laws surrounding him, Lumumba slipped out under the cover of night and escaped to nearby Stanleyville (now Kisangani), where he believed he had enough supporters to set up his own government — and army, whom one supposes he had by then resolved to pay rather better.

Pursued by forces loyal to the new government, Lumumba was captured and arrested in early December 1960 and charged with “inciting the army to rebellion.” Devoid of his former UN protection, the man who would be the leader of a newly free nation watched as he became a pawn in a much larger struggle. UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld appealed to the process of law –- whatever that was –- while the USSR jumped a step ahead, demanding that Lumumba be immediately released and reinstated as prime minister and all UN forces withdrawn.

So much for that. The UN Security Council convened, and, a week later, the USSR’s resolution was defeated. Another, Western-backed resolution that would have given the UN power to act as impartial arbitrator was vetoed by the USSR.

At this point, caught between hostility of Cold War politics and the ever-hazy idea of “international law,” Lumumba languished in the military barracks of an even more hostile government. Hearing of plans for his transfer to barracks at the now-subdued Katanga province, Lumumba was wild on the plane trip and was forcibly restrained after appealing to other passengers to intervene on his behalf. Late at night after his arrival at his new prison, Lumumba was driven to an isolated spot and executed by firing squad. News of his death was not released until three weeks later, when it sparked protests in several European cities over the role of the Belgian government, which denied any involvement.

The extent of US and Belgian involvement in Lumumba’s death remains the subject of ongoing speculation. So does the question of what might have been.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Belgium,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Congo (Kinshasa),Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guest Writers,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Shot,Summary Executions

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  • Arlene Bruinink: Thank you for the information. Konrad Breuning is my ancestor. I have learned this on “my...
  • Becky: Ignorant, racist and stuck on capslock is no way to live life. Have a great day!
  • World Traveler: Felipe Angeles was a brilliant man but wanted people to work 3 hours a day and live as if they had...
  • Sergio: I suppose you mean Grafanil military base.
  • NOEL: In 2017, in “Eagle and Lamb” (Penfolk Publishing, Blackburn, Vic.) I published an account of my...