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.

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

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1957: Burton Abbott, reprieved too late

3 comments March 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1957, the phone outside San Quentin’s gas chamber rang with a governor’s reprieve for Burton Abbott … but the execution was already underway.

Abbott was convicted of abducting and murdering 12-year-old Stephanie Bryan — a notorious crime that poet Sharon Olds, then a San Francisco teenager about the same age as the victim, memorialized in verse.

Then dirt scared me, because of the dirt
he had put on her face. And her training bra
scared me—the newspapers, morning and evening,
kept saying it, training bra,
as if the cups of it had been calling
the breasts up—he buried her in it,
perhaps he had never bothered to take it
off. They found her underpants
in a garbage can. And I feared the word
eczema, like my acne and like
the X in the paper which marked her body,
as if he had killed her for not being flawless.

Strong though ultimately circumstantial evidence connected Abbott to the crime, and the accused coolly maintained his own innocence at trial and thereafter. (The Oakland Museum has an extensive collection of photographic negatives from the trial.)

Abbott convinced his mom, but not many others — see this comment thread, for instance.

His last hours on March 15 were a rush of activity for a defense team that had fought for any possible angle to avert his death. A flurry of communications to Gov. Goodwin Knight delayed the execution once, and then secured a second stay just as the Abbott was being prepared for his fate.

By the time the phone rang, Abbott was already shrouded in cyanide fumes.

Goodwin’s Secretary Joseph Babich: Has the execution started?
Warden Harley O. Teets: Yes, sir, it has.
Babich: Can you stop it?
Teets: No, sir, it’s too late.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Gassed,Kidnapping,Murder,Reprieved Too Late,USA

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1849: Lajos Batthyány and the 13 Martyrs of Arad

8 comments October 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1849, the shining lights of Hungary’s 1848 revolution met the Austrian Empire’s firing squadsexecutioners. (Correction: Most were hanged, not shot. See comments.)

Probably no polity in Europe stood more fundamentally in danger from the wave of 1848 revolutions than the Habsburg Empire. While governments would be overthrown and power renegotiated across the continent, the Austrian state’s dynastically welded hodgepodge of mingled ethnicities appeared existentially at odds with the nationalist stirrings afoot.

And none of those ethnicities answering to Vienna stirred as vigorously as the Hungarians.

The Hungarian Diet established a national government under Lajos Batthyány (English Wikipedia page | Hungarian) (or Louis Batthyani) in the spring of 1848* and soon pushed for more self-determination than Austria was prepared to countenance.

When Austrian troops turned on Hungary, the aspiring nation issued an 1849 declaration of independence full of vituperation for the ancient noble line.

[T]he house of Hapsburg-Lorraine, as perjured in the sight of God and man, has forfeited its right to the Hungarian throne …

Three hundred years have passed since the Hungarian nation, by free election, placed the house of Austria upon its throne, in accordance with stipulations made on both sides, and ratified by treaty. These three hundred years have been, for the country, a period of uninterrupted suffering.

This dynasty … which can at no epoch point to a ruler who based his power on the freedom of the people, adopted a course toward this nation from father to son, which deserves the appellation of perjury.

The house of Austria has publicly used every effort to deprive the country of its legitimate independence and constitution, designing to reduce it to a level with the other provinces long since deprived of all freedom, and to unite all in a common link of slavery.

Guess how that turned out.

Lajos Batthyany portrait by Hungarian painter Miklos Barabas.

It wasn’t much of a contest in the field, leaving this day’s doings the shooting of Batthyany at Pest (the city later merged with Buda and Obuda to form Budapest) and 13 Hungarian generals — the so-called 13 martyrs of Arad — in a Translyvanian city that is today part of Romania.

This was not, however, the last the Habsburg dynasty would hear of Hungary’s frustrated national aspirations.

Three years later, a Hungarian nationalist attempted to assassinate the youthful Emperor Franz Joseph,** and the strength of the Magyar lands’ self-determination movements would eventually drive a formal ratification of Hungarian privileges that rechristened the state as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or simply Austria-Hungary.

All that stuff we said about you Habsburgs? Bygones.

While becoming half of a dual capital opposite Vienna meant a late 19th-century renaissance for Budapest, this cure by the Empire for its internal pressures proved almost as harmful as the disease. The pressures immediately discharged would pale in comparison to the conflicts Hungarians’ now-privileged status helped provoke with Slavs and other ethnic minorities (exacerbated by Hungarians’ ability to block Austrian foreign policy). In an early preview of a now-familiar pattern, the proto-nation-state of Hungary was a nastier piece of work for its ethnic minorities than the decadent old melting-pot ruled from Vienna … and the road from this day’s executions to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise ran straight on to 1914 Sarajevo and the graveyard of Habsburg history.

As for the executions this day, Batthyany was saluted by the great Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in his Funerailles:

More prosaically and much more pervasively, a legend that Austrians were jovially toasting the death of the 13 Martyrs as they were being executed translated into a still-active tradition against clinking beer glasses in Hungary.


The Martyrs of Arad (Sixth of October) by Janos Thorma

* Hungary’s March 15 National Day derives from this period.

** Franz Joseph was no mere abstract emblem of imperial absolutism: he had assumed the Austrian throne in December 1848 upon the abdication of his feebleminded uncle specifically to free the crown from the oaths his predecessor had taken to various reforms. From the Hungarian perspective — and the declaration excerpted above dwells at length on the perfidy of this maneuver — he was installed to crush the revolution.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,Habsburg Realm,Heads of State,History,Hungary,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Revolutionaries,Romania,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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1938: Seventeen former Bolshevik officials from the Trial of the 21

22 comments March 15th, 2008 Dmitri Minaev

(Thanks to Dmitri Minaev of De Rebus Antiquis Et Novis for the guest post. Be sure to read his corollary piece on cameos by some of this day’s victims in Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita.)

On 15 March 1938, 17 former executives of the Communist Party were executed at the “special object” Kommunarka near Moscow.

As head of the NKVD, Yagoda had arranged show trials before. This time, the shoe was on the other foot.

The names of some of them are found in any history book’ others were totally unknown even in 1930s. Alexey Rykov and Nikolay Bukharin were the topmost (well, almost) leaders of the USSR. Nikolai Krestinsky was a member of the Central Committee Secretariat and the Soviet ambassador to Germany. Christian Rakovsky was a diplomat, the head of the government of the Ukrainian SSR. Genrikh Yagoda was the minister of internal affairs, head of NKVD (the late name of Cheka). P. Kryuchkov was an officer of OGPU (an NKVD department) and the secretary of Maxim Gorky, the “official writer” of the communist USSR.

The others were ex-finance minister of the USSR Grigory Grinko, the general secretary of the Communist Party of Uzbekistan Vladimir Ivanov, ex-prime-minister of the Uzbek SSR Faizullo Hojayev, ex-minister of foreign trade of the USSR Arkady Rozengoltz, ex-minister of agriculture Mikhail Chernov, Isaac Zelensky, S. Bessonov, Akmal Ikramov, Vasily Sharangovich, Prokopy Zubarev, Pavel Bulanov, Veniamin Maksimov-Dikovsky and the doctors Lev Levin, Ignaty Kazakov and Dmitri Pletnyov (one of the founders of the Soviet cardiology).

There were 21 of them under trial, but three (Pletnyov, Rakovsky and Bessonov) were sentenced to imprisonment* and the date of execution of Yagoda remains unknown. The others all died this day.

Railroaded

“The trial of the 21” was officially known as “the case of the anti-Soviet right-Trotskyite block”. They were accused of “treason, espionage, sabotage, terror, undermining Soviet military power and provoking foreign countries to attack the USSR”. The other accusations were: a conspiracy to restore capitalism and to separate the Soviet republics and the Far East from the USSR; ties with foreign intelligence (including that of Nazi Germany, via Trotsky or directly); preparation of military aggression against the USSR; organizing peasants’ revolts in the USSR; the murders of Kirov, Menzhinsky, Kuibyshev, Maxim Gorky and his son Maxim Peshkov; and attempts to assassinate Lenin, Stalin and N. Yezhov (note this name).

After having his memory jogged, Krestinsky remembered that he really was part of the right-Trotskyite conspiracy.

Only the three doctors were provided with a legal defense. The others “voluntarily” refused.

All of them confessed to committing most of the various supposed crimes, although several had unavailing caveats. Krestinsky denied the charges, but it took only one day to convince him of his “failing” memory. “I fully and completely admit that I am guilty of all the gravest charges brought against me personally, and I admit my complete responsibility for the treason and treachery I have committed,” he said on the next day. Bukharin denied some of the charges brought against him. The doctors insisted that they killed Menzhinsky because of fear of Yagoda. Yagoda himself confirmed that he participated in the murder of Gorky’s son Peshkov, but said that motives were personal and not anti-Soviet.

According to the documents found in the archives, Bukharin, Rykov and Krestinsky were sentenced to death on 2 March, on the first day of the process. It could be an error, but on the other hand, it could indicate that the sentence was determined before the trial.

Neverending Story

The first draft of this article started like this: “This story began in …”

Then I stopped and scratched my head. The date when this story really began is not very clear. Some would argue that it began in 1922 when Stalin became the general secretary of VKP(b), others might say that it started in 1918, when the Bolsheviks dissolved the Constituent Assembly, and so on. What is clear is that 1937, when many of those twenty one were arrested, was not the beginning.

Then I decided to begin the other way round: “This story ended in…”

And once again I stopped. This trial had too many interesting corollaries and, of course, the story did not end in 1938. So, in the end the article became a mess of jumps in time to and fro. We are nearly as far removed today from Stalin’s purges as the purges were from the age of Russian serfdom — and those trials throw a shadow across the entire span of time.

Terror

Here’s a small extract from the series of events that preceded and followed the trial. In 1936 Bukharin and Rykov zealously supported the prosecutions of Zinoviev and Kamenev, two other old faithful Bolsheviks, accused by Stalin in opposing the policy of the party. The campaign ended with their trial and execution. Bukharin wrote letters to Stalin:

“I have always sincerely supported the line of the party and Stalin … These are the glorious milestones: industrialization, collectivization, elimination of kulaks, two great five-year plans, concern for the working man, new technologies and stakhanovism, wealthy life, the new constitution.”

“It’s great that the rascals [Zinoviev and Kamenev] were shot. The air became cleaner.”

Bukharin kept busy awaiting trial by writing Philosophical Arabesques … and three other books.

In 1925-1926, when Stalin organized the first campaign against Zinoviev and Kamenev, Bukharin and Rykov also applauded him. “I hand the broom to comrade Stalin,” said Rykov, “to wipe our enemies away.” Yet earlier, Bukharin and Rykov together with these “enemies” Zinoviev and Kamenev helped Stalin to repel the attempts of Trotsky to become the leader of the Soviet state after the death of Lenin.

Bukharin was not an idiot. He understood that he was not any different from Zinoviev. He was the first candidate to replace Stalin if something happened to Stalin — which made him automatically suspect in the eyes of the boss.

Moreover, he was a Bolshevik and he knew the habits of Bolsheviks very well. Caricaturist Boris Yefimov recalled that on 1 December 1934, when Bukharin learned of the assassination of Kirov, he told the other people who were in the room: “Kirov was killed in Leningrad. Now Koba will shoot us all.” (Koba was Stalin’s nom de guerre) But, being a professional revolutionary and conspirator, he knew only one strategy for survival: hypocrisy.

In this 1927 photo at Lenin’s mausoleum, two of today’s victims — Rykov (on the far left) and Bukharin (by his side) — share the platform with Joseph Stalin (far right). Between them is Kalinin, the rare old Bolshevik who managed to survive the 1930’s. (Source)

This strategy did not guarantee success with Stalin. The proof for this may be found in what happened during and after the trial.

Ostracism

Let’s have a look at the newspapers of 1938.

From the resolution of the meeting of the workers of the institute of physiology of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences and the institute of experimental biology and pathology of the Ukrainian ministry of health care.

With the deepest resentment and indignation we hold up to shame the traitors of their motherland, the mercenaries of the fascist secret services, mean Trotskyite-Bukharin’s scoundrels. The history of humanity hardly knows other examples of similar crimes.

We proclaim that the fascist mercenaries will never succeed in dismembering the great Soviet Union and in handing the flourishing socialist Ukraine to the capitalists. We add our voices to the voice of the many million Soviet people demanding to exterminate all the mean traitors, spies and murderers.

From the resolution of the third conference on physiology of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR.

The traitors Bukharin, Rykov, Yagoda and others did not disdain any means in their vile job. These traitors never eschewed any mostrous crime.

The doctors Pletnyov, Kazakov, Vinogradov and Levin in this repellent union consciously used the trust of their patients to kill them. History never saw such crimes. Death to these murderers! Destroy all the gang of the “right-trotskyite” block!

From the article “We demand merciless retaliation against the vile traitors of our great Motherland”.

Having sold themselves to the fascists, plotting with the diplomats and the general staffs of some aggressive imperialist states, a despicable handful of human degenerates, servants of the fascist cannibals, led by a Gestapo agent, gangster Trotsky, sold our socialist motherland and its treasures to the most evil enemies of the human progress.

We demand from our Soviet court merciless retaliation against the vile traitors! We demand the extermination of the despicable degenerates!

The last article was signed by many outstanding scientists: the chairman of the Academy of sciences Komarov, professor Valeskalns, academics Keller, Bach, Vavilov, Gorbunov and others. N. Vavilov died in prison in 1943. N. Gorbunov was sentenced to death and executed in 1938. I am not certain about the others, but about 70% of the members of the Central Committee of the Communist party who supported Stalin’s proposal to arrest Bukharin and Rykov were later arrested themselves, and many of them died or were killed.

Here’s another quotation from a newspaper:

While accepting responsibility for the endless chain of dreadful bloody crimes which history never saw before, Bukharin attempts to give an abstract, ideological, sissy nature to his concrete criminal guilt. He fails to do so, the court and the prosecutor easily discern these attempts, but this trick is very typical for Bukharin’s nature of the right-Trotskyite political prostitute.

The pretensions of the garrulous, hypocritically vile murderer Bukharin to look as an “ideologist” lost in theoretical blunders are hopeless. He will not succeed in separating himself from the gang of his accomplices. He will not succeed in averting full responsibility for the chain of monstrous crimes. He will not wash his academic hands. These hands are stained with blood. These are the hands of a murderer.

I ask myself, “If you must die, what are you dying for?” With startling vividness a black void immediately rises before my eyes. “There is nothing to die for, if one wants to die unrepentant. If, on the contrary, one repents, everything fine and good that shines in the Soviet Union acquires in one’s mind a new dimension.” In the end it was this thought that completely disarmed me. I went down on my knees before the Party.
Bukharin

This article was written by a gifted poet, journalist Mikhail Koltsov on 7 March 1938. He was shot by NKVD on 2 February 1940, less than two years later.

By the way, N. Yezhov (the “assassination” target of Bukharin’s party), who replaced Yagoda as the head of NKVD, was also arrested and executed in 1940 as a spy and conspirator.

Krestinsky, Ikramov, Hojayev and Zelensky were acquitted in 1963.

On 4 February 1988 the Supreme Court of the USSR ruled that confession cannot be interpreted as a proof of guilt and acquitted ten out of twenty one victims. (I could not find information on the cases of Grinko, Bessonov, Sharangovich, Zubarev and Pletnyov.) The sentence against Yagoda, to whose ruthless secret police history has been less generous, was left in force.

* Pletnyov, Rakovsky and Bessonov, the three to avoid death sentences at the Trial of the 21, were later summarily executed together with 154 other political prisoners when the Nazi armies approached the city Oryol in September 1941.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Intellectuals,Mass Executions,Other Voices,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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