2012: Moussa Agh Mohammed, by Ansar Dine in Timbuktu

Add comment October 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 2012, northern Mali’s Islamist Ansar Dine movement, then in control of the city of Timbuktu, publicly executed Moussa Agh Mohammed there for murder.

Mohammed was one of Ansar Dine’s own fighters, but stringent consistency would oblige his fellows to put him to death under the sharia law Ansar Dine itself was enforcing in Timbuktu. Some days before he got into a fight with fishermen who reproached him for trampling their nets; as the confrontation escalated towards physical violence, Mohammed unslung his Kalashnikov and gunned one of them down. The fisherman’s family was offered, but refused, compensation in exchange for sparing the killer.

According to a correspondent, Mohammed “was a Tuareg cattle farmer from a major tribe [who] joined the Ansar Dine movement one month ago [before his execution]” having previously been affiliated with the Tuareg rebel army the National Movement for the Independence of Azawad. It was the third known execution in northern Mali under sharia: the previous two were an adulterous couple stoned to death in the town of Aguelhok.

“I didn’t feel a great deal of emotion from the crowd,” our observer reported. “People just stood there and watched as if it were a show. In contrast, the members of Ansar Dine looked moved by the event. Mohammed had close relationships with a number of his peers. But they explained that no one is exempt from Sharia law, and because of that they had no choice but kill him. It was a question of God’s will.”

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1680: The wife of Abdullah Celebi, and her Jewish lover

Add comment June 28th, 2016 Headsman

At noon on Friday, 28 June 1680, people crowded into Istanbul’s Hippodrome, the city’s main public space, to stone to death a Muslim woman identified as ‘the wife of Abdullah Celebi’ for adultery with an infidel, and to witness the beheading of the Jew who was alleged to be her lover, a neighbourhood shopkeeper. Neighbours who had raided her home when they knew that the Jew was inside claimed to have found the couple having intercourse, which was doubly illicit: not only was she married, but sexual relations between Christian or Jewish men and Muslim women were forbidden by law. The accused denied any wrongdoing, but a mob dragged the two before the chief justice of the empire’s European provinces (known as Rumelia), Beyazizade Ahmet (d. 1686), who had previously been the main judge at Istanbul’s Islamic law (shariah) court.

Beyazizade accepted the testimony of the witnesses. Denying the accused a trial, he condemned the pair to death. Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha (d. 1683) reported his decision to Sultan Mehmet IV (r. 1648–87, d. 1693), who confirmed the sentence. The sultan attended the double execution in person and offered the man conversion to Islam, permitting him to die swiftly and with dignity by decapitation. Mehmet IV was the only sultan to order an adulteress to be executed by stoning during 465 years of Ottoman rule in Istanbul.

Indeed, public stoning of adulterers was such a rare event in medieval and early modern Islamic history that it is difficult to find any other examples of Islamic rulers punishing transgressors of sexual norms in this way.

This remarkable double execution comes to us by way of three Muslim chroniclers via “Death in the Hippodrome: Sexual Politics and Legal Culture in the Reign of Mehmet IV” by Marc Baer* — whom we have excerpted above. Regrettably, it’s entombed behind a paywall.

Our Ottoman interlocutors universally hold the stoning and beheading as a gross moral failure on the part of both judge and sultan. To begin with, all three chroniclers consider the accusation against the couple legally groundless: evidently the two were not really caught in flagrante delicto and both denied the liaison; this led Sari Mehmet Pasha** to sharply criticize the judge for even admitting neighbors’ suspicions as evidence — rather than punishing the accusers themselves for slander.

According to shariah it is incumbent to accept such testimony only when this situation is witnessed with one’s own eyes, meaning that the witnesses actually see the man insert his penis in and out of the woman ‘like inserting the reed pen in and out of the kohl pot’. But this is one of those impossible conditions set forth to ensure that such charges and their punishment are not frivolously made. Moreover, what is also needed is the woman’s own confession, or admission of guilt. Yet in this case she insistently denied the charge. The Jew likewise continuously claimed he had no knowledge of the affair.

Indeed, another astonished chronicler, Mehmet Rashid, believed that the law required such exacting pornographic specificity of a witness that no adulterers had ever been executed in the history Islam without their own confession. All describe the eyewitness standard as a shield, not a cudgel.

Moreover, even a demonstrable crime of the flesh — and even one committed by a Jew or Christian with a married Muslim woman — ought not result in capital punishment according to religious scholars of the period marshaled by Baer. (At least, not of the man: theoretically the woman could be stoned to death although in practice this never occurred either.)

What was bizarre and blameworthy to contemporaries was that an esteemed judge issued a verdict of literally historic harshness on such dubious grounds — and that the sultan seemed eager not to restrain, but to enforce it. Their narratives† cast Mehmet in a very dark light. “Let me see [the executions] in person,” he says in Silahdar Findiklili Mehmet Agha’s account — then makes a point to cross the Hellespont that morning from the Asian to the European side of the city the better to establish himself in a mansion commanding a view of the ceremonies.

At that time they brought the woman and the Jew to the place of execution. Being told, “Become a Muslim, you will be redeemed, you will go to Paradise,” the Jew was honored by the glory of Islam and then decapitated at the base of a bronze dragon

Wailing and lamenting, [the woman] cried, “They have slandered me. I am innocent and have committed no sin. For the sake of the princes, do not kill me, release me!” But they did not let her go.

Since the incident is unique even in Mehmet’s own long reign one draws larger conclusions at one’s own risk: hard cases make bad law. But it might be possible to perceive here a misjudgment by a man who, having grown to manhood out of the shadow of the dangerous harem that had lately dominated Ottoman politics felt keen to assert himself as a champion of realm and faith alike. (And his sex into the bargain.)

Baer presents Mehmet as an unusually eager proselytizer, always ready with a conversion blandishment whether for infidels captured in the empire’s European wars or for chance encounters with Jewish and Christian commoners. (He also forced a noted rabbi, Shabbatai Tzevi, to convert after the latter started getting some traction as a possible Messiah, and eventually began pressuring Istanbul’s numerous court Jews — physicians, advisors, and miscellaneous elite intelligentsia — to become Muslims as well.) And a Muslim movement had in recent years clamped down on carnivalesque diversions like taverns and public singing thought to trend toward impiety.

Three years later, Mehmet would (over)extend the Porte’s sway to the gates of Vienna. But Mehmet’s defeat there helped to collapse his own power back home, and he was deposed in 1687.

Our correspondents, writing in the wake of that reversal, unmistakably view affairs like this date’s executions as evidence of moral depravity that was punished by its authors’ subsequent misfortunes. Writing of the once-powerful judge, who chanced to die around the same time Mehmet fell, Defterdar concludes that “Beyazizade fearlessly persevered in the matter without scruple” until “the hearts of young and old turned away from him in disgust” and he fell “from the summit of his dignity.”

* Past and Present, Feb. 2011

** The imperial treasurer, himself executed in 1717.

† It does bear remarking that all three chroniclers wrote after Mehmet IV’s own fall.

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2010: Two Afghan adulterers stoned

5 comments August 15th, 2011 Headsman

On this date last year, the Taliban carried out the public stoning of an adulterous couple who had attempted to elope in northern Afghanistan.

“Even family members were involved,” the New York Times reported, “both in the stoning and in tricking the couple into returning after they had fled.”

as a Taliban mullah prepared to read the judgment of a religious court, the lovers, a 25-year-old man named Khayyam and a 19-year-old woman named Siddiqa, defiantly confessed in public to their relationship. “They said, ‘We love each other no matter what happens,'” [local farmer Nadir] Khan said.

The executions were the latest in a series of cases where the Taliban have imposed their harsh version of Shariah law for social crimes, reminiscent of their behavior during their decade of ruling the country. In recent years, Taliban officials have sought to play down their bloody punishments of the past, as they concentrated on building up popular support.

“We see it as a sign of a new confidence on the part of the Taliban in the application of their rules, like they did in the ’90s,” said Nader Nadery, a senior commissioner on the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. “We do see it as a trend. They’re showing more strength in recent months, not just in attacks, but including their own way of implementing laws, arbitrary and extrajudicial killings.”

Apparent cell phone video of the execution later surfaced.

Warning: Mature Content. It’s two filmed stonings, after all.

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1999: Zarmeena

4 comments November 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1999,* a burka-clad woman known only as Zarmeena (alternatively, Zarmina … or in some early reports, Zareena) was executed by gunshot in Kabul’s Ghazi Sports Stadium.

This first public execution of a woman under the Taliban — ordered because she had supposedly killed her husband** — was secretly filmed by a Revolutionary Association of the Woman of Afghanistan activist smuggling a camera under her own burka.

Caution: This video is (in)famous enough, thanks to its inclusion in the documentary Beneath the Veil, that you’ve probably already seen it. But it’s still a graphic image of a woman shot through the head at point-blank range. (From around 2:20)

The book With All Our Strength: The Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan expands somewhat on RAWA’s calculations on this occasion, on the young activist who pulled off the risky filming, and on the purportedly hostile-to-the-Taliban crowd reaction.

* Some web resources give Nov. 17 as the date, but all the (admittedly limited) primary documentation available appears to me to point definitively to Nov. 16. RAWA, which shot the video, posts it with this date; wire copy that ran in western papers on Nov. 16 (here) and Nov. 17 (here) attributed the execution to Nov. 16.

** It’s not clear to me how dependable the information about the executee is; it’s said that she had been in prison well over a year but was rather suddenly executed for the Taliban’s exigent reasons of public intimidation. It’s also said that her husband’s family forgave her — which, under sharia as practiced by, e.g., Saudi Arabia, ought to have spared her life — and that Zarmeena herself may not have understood or believed that she was actually going to be executed until the very last moment.

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2009: A day in the death penalty around the world

Add comment January 15th, 2010 Headsman

Capiital punishment may be an ancient historical phenomenon, but it’s hardly ancient history.

The executions that several of the 21st century world’s more aggressive death penalty users coincidentally carried out a year ago today testify together to the enduring place (and variegated guises) of the headsman in modernity.

China

Three prisoners were reported killed in Jinan in China on Jan. 15, 2009.

Two were men who had been serving prison terms for separate crimes when they incurred a death sentence for a violent (though seemingly non-lethal) escape attempt.

Liu Junjie, 35, and Wang Bing, 31, broke out of the prison in Zibo City on December 8, 2007 as a truck was moving out of the prison gate, according to a statement from the Shandong Provincial High People’s Court.

They hit a prison worker and two policemen with iron bars and choppers as they forced their way out. They were later caught as they fled along a road.

Former cabbie Bo Lijun shared that fate for a series of thefts, rapes, and murders.

According to the court, Bo raped and suffocated a female barber on Oct. 23, 2002 in Dongying.

Bo attempted to rape a female passenger in a wooded area near Dongying on July 29, 2006. Although he abandoned the rape attempt, he clubbed her to death for fear she would inform the police, and he buried the body at the site.


Saudi Arabia

One Mushabeb Al-Ahmari was beheaded in the province of Asir for “killing a compatriot with a machine gun” (who he killed and why was not reported).

Al-Ahmari was a minor when he was sentenced. The statement said his execution was delayed until he came of age.


United States

62-year-old James Callahan suffered lethal injection in Alabama Jan. 15, 2009, after 26 years on death row for raping and murdering a Jacksonville State University student in 1982. Callahan

requested a last meal of two corn dogs, french fries and a Coke … spent the day visiting with family and spiritual supporters … receive[d] communion at 4:30 p.m.

Callahan’s will bequeaths to his son $36.42 from his prison account, a black and white Radio Shack TV, two watches, a Walkman, some headphones, a leather belt, two pairs of boots, one pair of Nike tennis shoes, food items and legal papers.


Updated: Somalia

(This incident was not brought to our attention until after the post was already up, but in the peripatetic spirit of the entry, we thought it suitable to append.)

Somali politician Abdirahman Ahmed (also known as Waldiire) was shot by an Islamist militia in the port of Kismayo on Jan. 15, 2009.

Perhaps the first pol executed by Islamists, Ahmed was once the spokesman for a faction in the Somali civil war. He was put to death for collaborating with the Ethiopians who invaded Somalia at U.S. behest. As the Ethiopians were Christian, this behavior qualified as “apostasy” to the militants’ sharia court.

In January 2009, Ethiopia was in the process of withdrawing its military presence in its war-torn neighbor.

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1997: Zoleykhah Kadkhoda survives stoning

Add comment August 11th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1997, Zoleykhah Kadkhoda was tried, condemned, and immediately stoned in the West Azerbaijan (Iran) city of Bukan.

Less commonly used but still to this day among the execution methods in Iran, stoning involves burying the victim in a hole — a man to his waist, a woman to her chest — and pelting him or her with rocks until dead. Plainly a horrible way to go, stoning is typically associated with adultery, which was Kadkhoda’s crime.

Kadkhoda made international headlines by surviving her attempted execution, either (accounts differ) because of popular intervention in the heavily Kurdish town, or by reviving at the morgue after being taken for dead.

International pressure caused the death sentence to be lifted; Kadkhoda was released later in that year.

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1977: Princess Misha’al bint Fahd al Saud and her lover

9 comments July 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1977, a 19-year-old royal adulteress and her paramour were executed in a Jeddah parking lot by the order of the girl’s powerful grandfather.

Princess Misha’al‘s fate has been obscured by secrecy and the Rashomon-like interpretations imposed upon it by observers.

In its outline (and the first stock interpretation we’re imposing) it’s that timeless human tragedy, the love story, in which headstrong royal daughter and suffocating traditional family square off over the seditious power of the feminine libido.

The princess, in a youthful arranged marriage by most accounts, took up with a Saudi boy while both were studying abroad in cosmopolitan Beirut, and dangerously attempted to maintain the affair back in the royal kingdom to the point of a quixotic (and obviously foiled) escape attempt. Whether under color of a judicial proceeding — the story says Misha’al refused to walk away by simply renouncing her lover and defiantly brought down the death sentence by confessing adultery — or simply on his own authority, the girl’s staunchly conservative* grandfather exercised his right as tribal patriarch to inflict an honor killing for the disgrace they had brought on the family.

The execution in Jeddah — she by gunshot,** he by a very clumsy beheading — that is supposed to have occurred on this date was public, but quiet; news of it got abroad only slowly and incompletely. Small wonder that, once it did, the blended motifs of Romeo and Juliet, harem titillation and oil politics made dynamite material for high-, middle- or lowbrow exploitation.

In 1980, the affair became the subject of one of the most notorious television programs ever aired, the docudrama Death of a Princess. This film’s airing in Britain in 1980 led Riyadh to expel the British ambassador, and cost £200 million of lost revenue for the UK from canceled orders and product boycotts by the Saudis.†

It was aired on in the United States on PBS in 1980 to similar controversy, as oil companies rushed to distance themselves from it.

Rebroadcast in 2005, Death of a Princess is available online for your judgment (as is this partial script): is this a muckraking expose of a shameful crime? orientalist heavy petting? “a sensitive and thoughtful exploration of the Arab dilemma,” as per its own advance publicity? and what did the official apologies (and in only a few countries, censorship) say about the political weight of the petroleum industry?

These, meanwhile, are the western reactions, already removed from events by a further layer of mediation, a forest of axes seeking grinding. If the writer who composed this piece is to be believed, the executed girl has posthumously achieved a sort of universal symbolic gravity in the Arab world, standing for the plight of any hopeless cause of justice dashed against authoritarian power.

* For the House of Saud, it must be recalled, the personal was political in the problematic confrontation between tradition and modernity athwart the desert kingdom’s sea of oil.

** “Princess Misha’al” was executed fully veiled, which permits the rumor that the slain woman was actually a surrogate and the onetime royal favorite lives on incognito somewhere.

† According to the July 4, 1980 London Times.

Part of the Themed Set: The Feminine Mystique.

Editor’s note: References to “Princess Misha” corrected; thanks to hannah for the clarification.

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1990: Pastor Hossein Soodmand, apostate

6 comments December 3rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1990, Hossein Soodmand, a Muslim who had converted to Christianity in the 1960’s, was hanged for apostasy under the sentence of a sharia court in Mashad, Iran — the last known apostasy execution in the Islamic Republic.

Soodmand’s post-conversion ministry in the Assembles of God church was not the sort of thing to endanger life and limb under the westward-looking Shah. But after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, there was a new sheriff in town.

Soodmand was not the last convicted or condemned for the crime — and converting to Christianity is still a crime — and his story has been back in the news of late because he may be in danger of losing his generation-long grip on the milestone.

In fact, he could lose the distinction to the next generation of his own flesh and blood.

The hanged pastor’s son, Ramtin Soodmand, was arrested in August, ostensibly for anti-government propaganda. But having followed his father’s evangelical footsteps, there was considerable fear — only slightly abated by his subsequent release on bail — that he could be put on trial for his life.

Amnesty International even put out an action alert for him during his detention, as a prisoner of conscience.

Around the same time, the Iranian legislature voted overwhelmingly for a measure to codify apostasy as a capital crime: confusingly, apostasy isn’t yet among the state’s statutes, but can be referred to sharia courts empowered to levy verdicts out of the Islamic religious tradition. (Besides Christians, Iran’s Baha’i are the other most likely defendants.)

The fact that these courts’ occasional death sentences since Soodmand have not been carried out is itself a telling indicator that the juridical disposition of apostasy cases in Iran is very sensitive to political pressure.

Small comfort to Ramtin’s sister Rashin Soodmand, who lives in London, and gave this moving interview to the Telegraph while her brother was still in a Mashad prison. In it, she describes her father spurning a bargain to abandon his illicit denomination in exchange for his life.

Of course, my father refused to give up his faith … He could not renounce his God. His belief in Christ was his life — it was his deepest conviction.

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1966: Sayyid Qutb

1 comment August 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1966, author and intellectual Sayyid Qutb was hanged for plotting to overthrow the Egyptian state.

Qutb — whose names can be transliterated many ways (Saïd, Syed, Seyyid, Sayid, or Sayed; Koteb, Kotb, Qutub or Kutb) — was one of the most influential Islamist thinkers of the 20th century, and helped shape the ideas of Osama bin Laden.

A traditionally-minded Muslim civil servant in a westernizing Egypt, Qutb’s journey to radicalism is traditionally dated to his late 1940’s study abroad in the U.S. at what is now the University of Northern Colorado, where the decadence, materialism, and lax morality of the global hegemon saw him seeing existential evil in the everyday all around him:

The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs — and she shows all this and does not hide it.

Qutb left Greeley, Colo., in 1950 with a master’s degree and an intention to mount an Islamic revolution in his home country that would implement sharia and keep shapely thighs safely under wraps. (Qutb never married, bemoaning the scanty pickings of pure fish in the sea. He may have faced the gallows a virgin.)

He hooked up with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, landed in Egypt’s famously savage prisons (future president Anwar Sadat was one of his judges), and the experience of torture hardened his commitment to a vanguard-led revolution. He kept up his prolific writing output, penning perhaps his most notable work, Milestones (the text was later used against him at his capital trial).

Qutb’s release in 1964 was only for a few months, before Egyptian security got wind of a new Muslim Brotherhood plot to overthrow the government and rounded up Qutb as the supposed ringleader — or just railroaded him because it didn’t like where he was going with passages like

there are many practical obstacles in establishing God’s rule on earth, such as the power of the state, the social system and traditions and, in general, the whole human environment. Islam uses force only to remove these obstacles so that there may not remain any wall between Islam and individual human beings.

With the benefit of hindsight, one can readily imagine that his martyr’s death did not squelch his movement, but greatened his stature to admiring eyes.

But it was hardly a direct path into an un-critiqued hall of martyrs in an undifferentiated “radical Islam”. While Qutb had his own influence in Egypt, Cairo has managed to keep the lid on the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutbism, however, was exported to Saudi Arabia — which intentionally imported it for various practical and geopolitical reasons — where it flourished, often in a fractious relationship with official Saudi Wahhabism.

One of Qutb’s students was the uncle of Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the hanged intellectual greatly influenced Zawahiri’s own path into radicalism and to al-Qaeda. Since September 11, of course, the path Qutb himself followed has become of much more pressing interest to the West as well as within the Muslim world.

Some noteworthy works by Sayyid Qutb

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2007: Not Sina Paymard, saved by a flute

July 18th, 2008 Headsman

On this date one year ago, a teenager who saved himself with a flute cheated Iran’s hangman by the narrowest of margins.

Sina Paymard had had the hemp about his throat the previous fall for murdering — at the tender age of 16 — a drug dealer in a pot buy gone bad.

The bipolar young musician’s last request was to play the ney (a Persian flute), and in a feat fit for legend, he played so movingly that the family of the victim reprieved him.

This power under Islamic sharia law comes with a price: the reprieve bought time for the families to negotiate alternative financial compensation known as diyeh. Come July, the lad’s family was still $90,000 short, and he was shifted to Tehran’s Evin prison to do the whole thing over again.

Sina’s new execution date received worldwide attention:

… helping them scrape together enough from donors (“notably a substantial donation from a university lecturer”) to make good his escape.

Such are the vicissitudes of the Iranian judiciary that Paymard went from all but dancing on air twice to outright liberty: he’s a free man today, or was as of a few months ago.

Though things worked out for Sina Paymard, other juvenile offenders continue to face the ultimate sanction in Iran — virtually the last outpost of the practice on the globe. Earlier this month, StopChildExecutions.com detailed 138 Iranian prisoners condemned for crimes committed as children; Iran has executed at least two such prisoners this year.

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