1965: Eli Cohen, Israel’s man in Damascus

1 comment May 18th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1965, Israel’s greatest spy suffered an ignominious public hanging in Martyrs Square, Damascus.


The signage swaddling the body denounces his crimes.

Eliahu Ben Saul Cohen — you can call him Eli(e) — was an Egyptian Jew who got recruited by Israeli intelligence to put his Arabic credentials to use in the cloak and dagger game.

You could say he’d found his calling.

After a spell establishing his cover story credentials in Argentina, he “returned” to Syria posing as a prodigal returning emigrant. There, he became the Zionist Richard Sorge.

Brazenly infiltrating the ascendant Ba’ath party and Syrian elite circles as wealthy businessman “Kamel Amin Thaabet”, Cohen piped years of high-quality intelligence to Israel from the very pinnacle of its enemy’s power structure.

(As described in this account, Eli’s own brother, another Mossad agent, was at one point charged with deciphering the spy’s communiques — thereby accidentally catching up with the family business.)


The trusted Eli Cohen in a snapshot with Syrian officials in the Golan Heights, overlooking Israel.

Cohen’s information on Syrian positions in the Golan has been credited with helping Israel win the Six-Day War in 1967.

But he wasn’t around to see it.

By that time, Syrian and Soviet intelligence had finally traced the damaging radio transmissions to “Kamel’s” apartment. He was purportedly — the matter is disputed, and smacks of hagiography — so influential and well-trusted at that point that he was on the verge of being named Deputy Minister of Defense.

Instead, he had a future in the martyr business.

A few books about Eli Cohen

After Cohen’s January 1965 arrest, events moved with implacable dispatch, and neither spy swaps nor diplomatic arm-twisting would avail an agent so embarrassingly, damagingly accomplished. Thousands turned out to cheer the spy’s public hanging, or gawk at the body as it remained hanging throughout the morning. Thousands more watched the live telecast of the execution.

(Six Syrians drew prison sentences for their parts in Cohen’s spy ring.)

Israel is still on about getting his body back from the Syrians. Whether or not that ever happens, the man lives on as a hero for his side. His story is the subject of the 1987 TV movie The Impossible Spy.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Espionage,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Infamous,Jews,Martyrs,Public Executions,Spies,Syria,Torture

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1969: Sirhan Sirhan condemned

4 comments April 23rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1969, Sirhan Sirhan was condemned to the California gas chamber for assassinating Robert F. Kennedy.

The aggrieved Palestinian was not marked by fate to suffer that last extremity of the law, however; instead, his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment when all existing death penalty statutes were invalidated in 1972.*

As a result, Sirhan Sirhan remains alive as of this writing, serving that sentence in the Golden State’s Pleasant Valley State Prison. He’ll be next up for parole in 2011.

(In a parole appeal back in 1982 — he’s been on a bit of a losing streak — the convicted assassin had the chutzpah to complain that “if Robert Kennedy were alive today, I believe he would not countenance singling me out for this kind of treatment.”)

Although the guy was seen in a crowded room pulling the trigger (onlookers tackled him) and he subsequently confessed to the deed, there has long been a conspiratorial counternarrative suggesting that other shooters were there, too. It’s pretty hard to say that the guy who emptied his chamber in front of dozens of witnesses wasn’t involved, but there are versions of this where he’s a Manchurian Candidate-style hypnotized patsy.

Politics: much more interesting in the 1960s.

Precisely because that is so, this particular man’s crime attracts retrospective interest for what followed: the charismatic Democratic frontrunner from Camelot cut down; the sinister Richard Nixon arising in his place to bomb Cambodia, burgle Watergate, and create the Environmental Protection Agency. Sirhan Sirhan “assassinated modern U.S. history.”

That really seems a bit much.

Sirhan Sirhan himself has contributed to the trippy theorizing about his case by being all over the map on it. At one point, he attempted to plead guilty and draw the death penalty; the trial judge forced him to go through with a defense. Subsequently, as noted, he’s whinged for an early release. He’s claimed to have had no memory of the attack, which certainly isn’t what he said after he got arrested.

Ultimately, the most self-evident explanation has always been the first one that he offered: “I did it for my country.”

Sirhan was a Jerusalem-born Palestinian dismayed by Israel’s success in the Six-Day War, and by America’s concomitant foreign policy tilt towards Israel.

Kennedy was a strong advocate of that policy, and his death happened to coincide with the anniversary of war.

Maybe that’s just what they want you to think. But it has to be allowed that the cause in question has claimed more lives than just RFK’s.

* People v. Anderson, decided by the California Supreme Court. Later that same year, the U.S. Supreme Court would issue Furman v. Georgia, which would have had the same effect for Sirhan Sirhan.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,California,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Gassed,History,Infamous,Murder,Not Executed,Notable for their Victims,Popular Culture,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists,USA

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