1995: Boris Dekanidze, the last in Lithuania

Add comment July 12th, 2016 Headsman

Lithuania conducted its last execution on this date in 1995, distinguishing Vilnius crimelord Boris Dekanidze with the milestone.

Dekanidze was born in Georgia, but had no citizenship anywhere. His father Georgy cashed in on the collapse of Soviet rule with businesses that, to survive and thrive in the 1990s, would be mobbed-up practically by definition. “When you have a collapse of government and total incompetence, people appear who can organize themselves and influence the lives of others,” Georgy said in this Newsweek report. “I can’t say if this is good or bad.” Georgy ran the Hotel Vilnius, an apt metaphor for the era.

The dapper son was convicted of ordering the murder of investigative reporter Vitas Lingys, founder of the still-extant Lithuanian newspaper Respublia* — a conviction sustained on the evidence given by the admitted gunman, Igor Akhremov.

“The collapse of government and total incompetence” was a much more nettlesome foe than this or that murderer, however. The single bullet fired into Dekanidze’s head on the morning of July 12, 1995 crippled his own criminal syndicate, the “Vilnius Brigade” — but it was not long before new gangs emerged to replace it.

Lithuania abolished the death penalty in 1998.

* Despite the punishment meted out in this one case, a wave of 1990s journalist assassinations around the former Soviet Union during the 1990s went mostly unsolved.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Lithuania,Milestones,Murder,Organized Crime,Shot

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1971: Sean Flynn and Dana Stone, Vietnam War photojournalists

1 comment June 6th, 2016 Headsman

On an unknown date thought to be approximately June of 1971, American photojournalists Sean Flynn and Dana Stone were executed by Communist captors in Southeast Asia.

Flynn is the big name of the pair,* literally: a former actor, he wasn’t in like his superstar father Errol Flynn. After trading on his prestigious name for a few silver screen credits, Sean grew bored of Hollywood and pivoted into a career in wanderlust — trying his hand as a safari guide and a singer before washing up in Vietnam where the action was in January 1966.

He made his name there as a man who would find a way to snatch an indelible image out of war’s hurricane, even at the risk of his own life.


One of Flynn’s photos: A captured Viet Cong being tortured. (1966)

On April 6, 1970, Flynn and fellow risk-seeking photojournalist Dana Stone hopped on rented motorbikes bound for the front lines in Cambodia. It was a last mission born of their characteristic bravado — all but bursting out of the frame astride their crotch rockets in the last photo that would become their epitaph. They were never seen again; having apparently been detained at a Viet Cong checkpoint, it’s thought that they ended up in the hands of Cambodian Khmer Rouge guerrillas and were held for over a year before they were slain by their jailers.


Flynn (left) and Stone mount the bikes for their lethal assignment. This is the last picture ever taken of them.

Sean’s mother, actress Lili Damita, spent years seeking definitive information about his fate, without success. Dana’s brother, John Thomas Stone, joined the army in 1971 reportedly with a similar end in mind; he was killed by friendly fire in Afghanistan in 2006. The prevailing conclusion about their fate arrives via the investigation of their colleague and friend, Australian journalist Tim Page — a man for whom memorializing the journalists who lost their lives during the Vietnam War has been a lifelong mission.

Though Flynn’s and Stone’s guts are undeniable, not everyone appreciated their methods. “Dana Stone and Sean Flynn [son of the Hollywood actor, Errol Flynn] were straight out of Easy Rider, riding around on motorcycles carrying pearl-handled pistols. Cowboys, really,” said fellow photog Don McCullin. “I think they did more harm than good to our profession.”

* He’s not to be confused with present-day actor Sean Flynn — that’s our Sean Flynn’s nephew. (Sean the nephew was named for Sean the uncle.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Uncertain Dates,USA,Vietnam,Wartime Executions

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2005: Steven Vincent, Iraq War journalist

Add comment August 2nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 2005, U.S. journalist Stephen Vincent was abducted off the streets of Basra by a Shia militia. Before the day was out, he had been extrajudicially executed on the outskirts of town — along with his assistant and translator, who managed to survive the execution.

Vincent, originally from California, had been a New York journalist (most prominent on the arts scene) for more than twenty years when he stood on his apartment’s roof on September 11, 2001, and watched United Airlines Flight 175 smash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

Deeply shaken by the specter of Islamic terrorism and wanting to, as he put it, “do my part in the conflict”, Vincent took an abrupt turn from his Gotham haunts and in 2003 bought his own ticket to Iraq to venture into the war zone with nothing but wits honed by a lifetime’s freelancing. Free of both institutional control and institutional protection, and picking up his Arabic on the fly, the dauntless Vincent reported from the ground in war-ravaged Iraq, eyed by perplexed officials who could scarcely help but suspect him a spy.

His 2004 book In the Red Zone: A Journey into the Soul of Iraq captures his impressions.

In April 2005, Vincent returned to Iraq — this time, to Muqtada al-Sadr‘s* bastion in the Shia south where, as he put it in a post on his still-extant blog, “militant Shiites … have transformed once free-wheeling Basra into something resembling Savonarola‘s Florence.”

One of few Western journalists in British-occupied but increasingly Sadr-controlled Basra, Vincent filed numerous stories raising the alarm on fundamentalism and Iranian influence.

“Basran politics (and everyday life) is increasingly coming under the control of Shiite religious groups,” Vincent wrote in a July 31, 2005 New York Times piece that would prove to be his last. “And unfortunately, the British seem unable or unwilling to do anything about it.”

Vincent traces the early cracks that would widen into Iraq’s now-familiar sectarian fracturing, and the ruins of a secular society as institutions like the university dare not shoo away self-appointed purity monitors of students’ dress and conduct lest they invite the wrath of the Iranian-backed Shia parties (and Shia police).

An Iraqi police lieutenant, who for obvious reasons asked to remain anonymous, confirmed to me the widespread rumors that a few police officers are perpetrating many of the hundreds of assassinations — mostly of former Baath Party members — that take place in Basra each month. He told me that there is even a sort of “death car”: a white Toyota Mark II that glides through the city streets, carrying off-duty police officers in the pay of extremist religious groups to their next assignment.

This passage prefigures Vincent’s own fate, and it’s thought to be the fact of his filing reports like this one that sealed it. Returning on the afternoon of August 2 from a Basra currency exchange with his translator Nouriya Itais Wadi (or Nouri al-Khal; Steven Vincent referred to her as “Leyla” in the personal dispatches he posted on his blog),** the pair was seized in broad daylight by armed men in a white police vehicle. Hours later, their bodies were recovered just a short drive away. Or rather, Vincent’s body was recovered: his aide, left for dead by her executioners, was clinging to life despite multiple gunshot wounds.

There’s an Open Source Radio interview with Vincent’s widow Lisa Ramaci-Vincent from August 10, 2005, available as a podcast here. After yet another journalist was abducted and murdered in Basra a few weeks later, Ramaci-Vincent launched the Steven Vincent Foundation “to assist the families of indigenous journalists in regions of conflict throughout the world who are killed for doing their jobs, and to support the work of female journalists in those regions.” She also helped Nouriya, who survived her injuries, to emigrate to the U.S.

Muqtada al-Sadr, who survived a 2008 attack by the American-backed Iraqi army on Basra, remains today one of the dominant figures in Iraqi politics.

* Saddam Hussein — a Sunni — had the name “Muqtada” chanted at him by his executioners during the fiasco of his hanging.

** Vincent’s relationship with his unmarried translator has also been cited as a possible factor in their murder. He was apparently planning to marry her opportunistically to help her escape Iraq, a plan that his wife knew about and supported.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Executions Survived,History,Iraq,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1979: Bill Stewart, ABC News reporter

Add comment June 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1979, the American Broadcasting Company journalist Bill Stewart was executed at a somocista checkpoint during Nicaragua’s bloody civil war.

And what is more, the deed was caught on film — pre-emptively balking the crumbling Nicaraguan dictatorship of the ability to, say, blame the killing on the Sandinista rebels.

Warning: This is the execution footage.

Stewart was stopped in a marked press vehicle in Managua, ordered to lie down, and then kicked and shot through the head while colleagues looked on. Though his summary execution by national guardsmen was taped by fellow journos in the convoy, the reasons for it are well into the fog of war: even the identity of the guardsman who pulled the trigger isn’t known. (The commander of the roadblock would claim that it was a “Private Gonzalez” who conveniently died in combat later the very same day.) The immediate “investigation” promised by dictator Anastasio Somoza didn’t really have much chance to get off the ground before Somoza himself had to take to the skies fleeing, on July 17, the collapse of his own regime. Whether the executioner also escaped the revolution, fled into exile, became a Contra guerrilla, or actually did die in the fighting, only God can say.

“The murder of American newsman Bill Stewart in Nicaragua was an act of barbarism that all civilized people condemn,” said U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who of course was backing Somoza.* “Journalists seeking to report the news and inform the public are soldiers in no nation’s army. When. they are made innocent victims of violence and war, all people who cherish the truth and believe in free debate pay a terrible price.”

Stewart’s career and murder are a principal inspiration for the 1983 film Under Fire.

* Or more precisely by this point, backing Somocismo sin Somoza — ease out the unpopular Somoza but keep the same system.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mature Content,Nicaragua,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Shot,Summary Executions,USA,Wartime Executions

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1794: Simon-Nicholas Henri Linguet, who defended Nero

1 comment June 27th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Simon-Nicholas Henry Linguet was guillotined during the French Revolution for having written praise of foreign tyrants.

Linguet (English Wikpiedia entry | French) was a brilliant lawyer and a prolific but prickly man of letters. Famous in his own day for his prose, he’s of less account to a modernity that’s long forgotten the various axes he had to grind.

The one sure constant in his life was a gift for making enemies.

Linguet was an Enlightenment philosophe at the start of his public life, and made an early name for himself when his forceful intervention in the case of the Chevalier de la Barre helped save La Barre’s friends from sharing his fate.

He soon apostatized from the Reason-worshipping “fanatical” philosophes, and eventually found himself disbarred for irritating too many fellow barristers. Turning instead to journalism, his Annales politiques, civiles et litteraires — published mostly in exile from 1777 to 1792 — became, as his biographer put it, “a quasi-independent force for molding opinion and policy in the power centers of Europe. Maneuvering among the great powers of Europe wielding the power of his public’s opinion, Linguet institutionalized political influence for himself, and liberty as well.” And of course the writing business really let Linguet’s native gift for pissing people off shine.

He scalded the French Academy and settled scores with rivals old and new. Eventually a suit by one of them landed Linguet in the Bastille when the latter tried to return to Paris in 1780.

Linguet got out (and left France again) in 1782, turning his spell in the Bourbon dungeons into a Memoirs of the Bastille,* which didn’t buy him as much sympathy as one might assume come revolutionary times since he had scarcely incurred his sufferings on behalf of the masses.

Linguet was finally able to return to his country with the Austrian embassy courtesy of ennoblement conferred by Marie Antoinette‘s brother Emperor Joseph II. His restored relations with Europe’s crowned heads, however, did not prevent him taking up the cause of Belgium’s Brabant Revolution as well as the Haitian Revolution.

An early member of the Cordeliers and temporary enthusiast of the Revolution, Linguet would later be bold enough to write Louis XVI offering to defend him. He was easy pickings in the end for a revolutionary tribunal that accused him of prostituting his literary gifts to Europes various ancien regimes: Linguet had taken refuge in his time with all of revolutionary France’s principal enemies, and had flattered their princes for his trouble; his provocative pen had set his name to a defense of slavery; and he’d even mounted an attack on Alexander the Great which in the great tradition of contrarian provocateurs compared the legendary conquerer unfavorably (on the body count metric) with the Emperor Nero. Literally defended Nero was the epitaph his prosecutors pinned to him, and it’s never fully come unstuck. It’s unfair, sure … but Linguet was the last man in a position to complain, and not just because he’d had his head cut off.

A manuscript of a history of France Linguet was working on was found among his papers after his visit to the guillotine. It made fine cartridge paper for France’s muskets.

* At one point in this text — an overwrought rant against the rigors of his imprisonment from the pen of a man whose previous treatises had scornfully defended absolutism against his former buddies among the philosophes — he mounts a defense of executioners, who “ought to be much less ignominious in the public opinion.” After all, they

are only the ministers of an indispensible severity: they are officers, and necessary officers, of a lawful power they may sometimes execute unjust orders; but they act constantly in obedience to justice and the laws. They are certain that the unfortunate being who is delivered to them, either has had, or will have, the means of defending himself: they are sure, or at least must believe, that an equitable and impartial enquiry has preceded the rigorous decision under which they act. They are authorized to think that none but the guilty, or at least men justly suspected, have ever been the objects of them.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Artists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Lawyers,Public Executions,Treason

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1926: Shao Piaoping, journalist

2 comments April 26th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1928, Chinese journalist and social activist Shao Piaoping was shot at Beijing’s Tianqiao execution grounds — fulfillment of his lifelong motto, “To die as a journalist.”

The intrepid Shao blazed a trail for print media in his native country, bucking a prejudice that mere journalism was a bit on the declasse side.

He co-founded and edited Hanmin Daily in 1911, just in time to get his support for the Xinhai Revolution into newsprint.

But Shao was no propagandist, and, post-revolution, was repeatedly arrested for his scathing critiques of Yuan Shikai and the various other illiberal strongmen taking roost. He had to duck out to Japan twice during the 1910s; there, he kept cranking copy, now as a foreign correspondent for Shanghai’s top newspapers. As the decade unfolded, he also became a theoretician of journalism without abating his prodigious ongoing output.

“I saw my role as that of helpful critic and believed it wrong to praise petty people simply to avoid trouble,” this pdf biography quotes Shao saying of himself. “I was determined not to dispense with my responsibility.”

By the late 1910s, he was publishing his own capital-city newspaper, Jingbao (literally “The Capital”) and developing his academic thought as a teacher at Peking University. He was perhaps China’s premier journalist; even so, he still had to slip into exile in Japan in 1919 after openly supporting the May Fourth student movement.

Shao left an impressive mark on his students, perhaps none more so than a penniless young leftist working in the university library, Mao Zedong.

As a guerrilla, Mao — still at that time an obscurity to most of the outside world — remembered Shao fondly to journalist Edgar Snow. In contrast to many other Peking University scholars who gave the provincial twentysomething short shrift, Shao “helped me very much. He was a lecturer in the Journalism Society, a liberal, and a man of fervent idealism and fine character.” Word is that Shao even loaned Mao money.

Shao’s acid pen and unabashed sympathy for agitators led to his arrest in 1926 by the warlord Zhang Zuolin — whose wrath Shao incited by denouncing bitterly a horrific March 18 massacre of students.

But the martyr journalist’s heroic career — not to mention his accidental link with the future Great Helmsman — insured his elevation into the pantheon, even though Shao’s underground membership in the Communist party was not known for decades after his death. Mao personally declared him a hero of the revolution, and intervened to see that his widow and children were cared for. China has any number of public monuments in Shao’s honor.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Power,Shot

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1912: George Redding, making Emile Gauvreau’s career

Add comment November 1st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1912, investigative reporter Emile Gauvreau saw George Redding hanged at the Connecticut State Prison in Wethersfield.

“When I left the prison to write my story,” Gauvreau later wrote in his memoir My Last Million Readers,* “I found out why newspapermen drank and I had my first half tumbler of cognac.”

Gauvreau was 21 years old, and he wasn’t a pup any longer.

This hard-charging journo from a rough-and-tumbler age would later make a name for himself pioneering the lowbrow Big Apple tabloid style with his New York Graphic. (“The PornoGraphic”, it was nicknamed.)

And he made his bones for that classic career in newsprint — from high school dropout to cub reporter to the heights of the profession — by making bones of George Redding.

The case was the mysterious February 1912 murder of a Hamden produce peddler by the name of Morris Greenberg. Greenberg was lured to a wooded area en route to buy from a local farmer and shot dead there for his cash. Police were stumped.

Gauvreau at the time was busting hard at the police desk of the New Haven Journal-Courier (since merged into the New Haven Register). He took a page from Sherlock Holmes and went to work on the sensational case freelance … painstakingly eliminating Hamden residents until he was left with George Redding.

Redding was a young man on the make himself, a charming 21-year-old playwright who’d been throwing a lot of money around lately and was known to carry a sidearm.

Circling his friends and paramours, Gauvreau sealed the young man’s fate by laying hands on a damning confessional that Redding had sent a friend. Gauvreau even stage-managed the arrest so that he could shock rival papers and police detectives by breaking the whole story in his paper. All that was left for police was extracting Redding’s confession.

(According to Legal executions in New England: A Comprehensive Reference, 1623-1960, the perp at first denied the crime. “By the following day, however, there was a marked change in Redding. He said that Greenberg’s ghost had appeared to him in the night and so he dare not deny his guilt any longer.”)

* Quote via this Columbia Journalism Review profile.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Connecticut,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Participants,Notable Sleuthing,Pelf,Theft,USA

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1882: William Heilwagner, onion weeder

Add comment March 24th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1882, German immigrant William Heilwagner hanged for murdering his daughter-in-law outside Davenport, Iowa.

“A chain of circumstantial evidence wrapped itself around the old man,” writes Laura James. He “made no real effort to explain or defend himself.”

There was little doubt William resented his son’s wife Annie — “the low livedest thing around” he said on the day of her death. This sportive lass yearned for recreation not to be found on Midwestern onion farms, and the neighbors heard the triangular family dust-ups that resulted. There was not a whit of direct evidence against the defendant, but since Otto was out playing pinochle that night, it really only left one suspect.

After the inevitable conviction, a greenhorn aspiring journalist from Davenport, one Charles Edward Russell, took an interest in the queer case. William Heilwagner’s behavior unsettled him; Russell pressed him for a jailhouse interview.

As described in Russell’s 1914 memoir, These Shifting Scenes (available free here), the taciturn Bavarian gave Russell nothing but aggravation.

“Where were you on the night when your daughter-in-law was killed?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you. Where were you?”

“Oh, I was in the house”

“Well, did you see her get killed?”

“Who? Me? No, I didn’t see her get killed.”

“Did you hear her cry out?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you. Did you hear her cry out?”

“No, I didn’t hear nothing.”

“Did she go to bed as usual that night?”

“Who? Annie? Oh, yes, I guess. She go to bed all right.”

“Did you hear her get up in the night? Did you hear anybody come to the house? Did you hear any talking or fighting?”

“Who? Me?”

“Yes, you.”

“No, I didn’t hear nothing.”

“Well, you knew that she went to bed that night and she wasn’t there the next morning and she never came back. Didn’t you think that was strange?”

“Didn’t I think what was strange?”

“That she had gone away in the night and never come back. Didn’t you think that was strange?”

“Who? Me? No, I didn’t think nothing about it. I just go weed my onions.”

It’s enough to drive a body to distraction. Between the prisoner’s feeble story and apparent disinterest in his fate, Russell figured the old weirdo did it — discounting Heilwagner’s scaffold declaration of innocence.

“Gentlemen, I am innocent of this crime.” Not one of us that heard believed him. What guilty man is ever punished? What murderer, however hardened, or however certain his crime, fails to protest on the gallows in the like terms and with the same hardihood? All the experienced reporters there told me they had heard such assertions often on the like occasion and were moved not a whit.

Ten years later, Heilwagner’s son Otto leapt to his death from a bridge in Quincy, Illinois.

Otto left behind a suicide note confessing to the murder of his wife: he had secretly rowed back to the house in the dead of night, enticed Annie out of the house, and murdered her for infidelity. Heilwagners, father and son, kept their peace about the secret while William hanged.

“Who? Me?” the old man had said, in answer to my questions. He knew it all, he knew who killed Annie, and he went calmly to his death to save his guilty son. Dull old man, chill and repulsive, he had in him so much of the hero and so much of love. “For greater love hath no man than this.”

It was a rugged introduction for a novice to the business of crime detecting and legalized life-taking. If I had been expert at my trade I might have saved that man. Post facto illumination — how foolish it is! I can see now the indications and signs and hints that meant nothing to me then. But even though I knew at the time nothing of the full horror of that day the experience sickened me of hangings. I have never since acquiesced in any capital punishment. It is as illogical as it is profitless. I have had in my time more than my share of these spectacles and I take it as a fact worthy of serious reflection that I have seen the state put to death eleven persons and five of these I know to have been absolutely innocent, while of the guilt of a sixth and the mental responsibility of a seventh there were the gravest doubts. Murder upon murder, and if I should be asked what good or advantage society reaped from the death of any or all of these, I should be unable to say, nor has there yet appeared in my range of experience any person more expert than I to make that answer.

Among the innocent Russell reckoned were the Haymarket martyrs, whose hanging he covered a few years later for Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World.

His keen sense of injustice — and a somewhat better-developed nose for a story — led Russell on to a career as the “prince of muckrakers,” credited with some of the signature coups of turn-of-the-century journalism, and a place on the masthead as a co-founder of the NAACP.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Iowa,Murder,Notable Participants,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1975: The Balibo Five, before the invasion of East Timor

4 comments October 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1975, five Australia-based journalists were slain in East Timor: executed (ahem, “allegedly”) by Indonesian security forces preparing to invade the former Portuguese colony.

The Balibo Five — Australians Greg Shackleton and Tony Stewart; Britons Brian Peters and Malcolm Rennie; and New Zealander Gary Cunningham — worked for two different Australian networks, but were together filing reports from the village of Balibo during the tense run-up to the December 1975 Indonesian invasion.

Just weeks before this date, the more Indonesian-friendly faction in the newly-independent statelet had been routed into Indonesian West Timor by the revolutionary Fretilin. Indonesian security forces were “covertly” probing into East Timor; to those on the ground, it was obvious that an attack was imminent.

Just three days after Greg Shackleton filed that broadcast, he was dead, along with all those colleagues who had been so moved by their Timorese hosts.

The Anglo journos had counted on their passports to protect them, and prominently advertised their Australian affiliations, believing that Indonesia’s western-backed dictatorship would not risk alienating its Cold War allies. By the official story — it’s still Indonesia’s official story — the Balibo Five nevertheless managed to all find their way into the crossfire when Indonesian troops overran Balibo on October 16.

But western sponsorship of this impending incursion went much deeper than the reporters imagined.

Much to the dismay of the men’s families, Canberra proved quite amenable to burying the matter rather than create a diplomatic incident. It even took a pass on the subsequent execution of another Australian who came to Timor Leste to investigate what happened to the Balibo Five — and was himself killed during Indonesia’s full-scale invasion.

Nevertheless, a considerable body of evidence has accumulated to the effect that the journalists’ death was the cold-blooded elimination of eyewitnesses who “could have testified that there was indeed an invasion by Indonesian troops.”

Australian filmmaker Robert Connolly last year fired new interest in the case by releasing Balibo, a dramatic feature film (shot on location in Balibo with Timorese extras) based on Jill Jolliffe’s book about the journalists.

Balibo is endorsed by East Timor’s president, and banned in Indonesia.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Australia,Borderline "Executions",East Timor,Execution,History,Indonesia,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Scandal,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1990: Farzad Bazoft, journalist

3 comments March 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1990, Iranian-born British journalist Farzad Bazoft was hanged at Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib prison as an Israeli spy.

The 31-year-old Observer freelancer was in Iraq to cover post-war reconstruction when he caught wind of an explosion at a military factory and set off to investigate.

This sniffing about Iraq’s weapons programs was not the sort of journalism Iraqi dictator (and future fellow gallows-bird) Saddam Hussein had in mind when his government invited Bazoft.

Bazoft was nabbed (along with the British nurse who had accompanied him, Daphne Parish) with photographs and soil samples from the sensitive compound.

Held incommunicado for six weeks, Bazoft was trundled onto state TV on November 1, 1989 to confess to spying for Israel (video of that confession is available from this BBC story).

Bazoft’s companion, Daphne Parish, was released after a few months in prison. She wrote this out-of-print book about her experiences. (Review)

He was convicted of espionage in a one-day, in camera trial on March 10 and hanged five days later.

Many years and wars later, Bazoft’s Iraqi interrogator would tell Bazoft’s former Observer colleagues that the man “was obviously innocent,” but that his fate had been decided at the highest levels.*

A few months after Bazoft’s hanging, when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and thereby transmogrified from a source of moderation in the region into the new Hitler, Bazoft’s execution naturally went onto the bill of attainder against Baghdad.

Like other Iraqi human rights abuses that became much bigger news only after Saddam became an official enemy, however, Bazoft’s fate exercised some of his defenders more in retrospect than it did in the moment.

Indeed, some British MPs openly endorsed the execution and some Fleet Street contrarians bucked the worldwide humanitarian appeal by publishing embarrassing information about Bazoft (he’d been to jail in Britain) leaked by British intelligence.

(Margaret Thatcher made the seemly applications for clemency, and the incident certainly strained the countries’ relationship. But the Tory government would later be embarrassed by revelations that, before and even after Bazoft’s hanging, it was pushing for closer trade relations and helping British firms skirt the law to ship Baghdad the weapons it would use against British troops in the coming Gulf War.)

* Bazoft is still honored by his former employer and his former colleagues, as well he might be. But the Observer‘s claim that it “proved” Bazoft’s innocence has to be taken with a grain of salt: apart from the de rigueur smoke-and-mirrors, plausible-deniability skein of the espionage game, the interrogator’s exculpatory statement was made by an obviously self-interested party to representatives of a power then occupying Iraq.

Although it’s a minority position subject to hot dispute, some people do believe that Bazoft was indeed a Mossad agent. Gordon Thomas, in Gideon’s Spies: The Secret History of the Mossad makes exactly that case.

Videotaped confession aside, Bazoft reputedly denied the espionage charge at the gallows.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Iraq,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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