1906: Four Egyptians for the Denshawai Incident

Add comment June 28th, 2017 Headsman

If her [England’s] empire means ruling the world as Denshawai has been ruled in 1906 — and that, I am afraid, is what the Empire does mean to the main body of our aristocratic-military caste and to our Jingo plutocrats — then there can be no more sacred and urgent political duty on earth than the disruption, defeat, and suppression of the Empire, and, incidentally, the humanization of its supporters.

-George Bernard Shaw

On this date in 1906, four Egyptian villagers were hanged by the British after a UK soldier died in riot begun by a pigeon hunt.

The Denshawai Incident — which is still to this day commemorated by its own museum — as an isolated event was one of those little local indignities that comprise a foreign military occupation. By the intersection of highhandedness on the one side and accumulated anger on the other it would become what George Bernard Shaw dubbed “the Denshawai Horror.”

On June 13, a mere 15 days before the executions in this post, a gaggle of bored Tommies* set out hunting pigeons in the Nile Delta. This was for the locals an irksome pastime inasmuch as the villagers raised these tame birds in brick towers for agrarian use — as Shaw noted:

Try to imagine the feelings of an English village if a party of Chinese officers suddenly appeared and began shooting the ducks, the geese, the hens and the turkeys, and carried them off, asserting that they were wild birds, as everybody in China knew, and that the pretended indignation of the farmers was a cloak for the hatred of the Chinese, and perhaps for a plot to overthrow the religion of Confucius and establish the Church of England in its place!

On this occasion, protesting villagers dared a little more resistance than was usual and before long a gun had discharged in the struggle, injuring several and felling a local woman (she survived, though onlookers took her wound for a mortal one in the moment). As if by metaphor, somewhere in the mayhem, somebody’s wheat caught fire.

Having clumsily escalated the disturbance that their presence had provoked, the Brits at length had to flee a small riot: one of their number died in the flight, the cause never clearly ascertained but attributed by a doctor to “heat apoplexy caused or aggravated by concussion of the brain.”** Several others were collared by the villagers, who abused them but did not kill them.

As Shaw notes, in a domestic English context it might have been the gendarmes who were punished for mismanaging the situation to the detriment of the public peace.

But the English occupation of Egypt disdained the hearts-and-minds approach, preferring bile and spleen. Fifty-two(!) villagers came up on charges of murder(!!) for the heatstroked officer, and the punishments meted out by a British-controlled court† seemingly aimed to maximize rancor with the understanding that cruelty was the only language the native could comprehend.

The husband of the woman shot by the hunting party, Shaw fulminated in an incandescent essay against imperialism,

in consideration of the injury to his wife, was only sentenced to penalty servitude for life … No such sentimentality was shewn to Hassan Mahfouz. An Egyptian pigeon farmer who objects to British sport; threatens British officers and gentlemen when they shoot his pigeons; and actually hits those officers with a substantial stick, is clearly a ruffian to be made an example of.

Penal servitude was not enough for a man of 60 who looked 70, and might not have lived to suffer five years of it. So Hassan was hanged; but as a special mark of consideration for his family, he was hanged in full view of his own house, with his wives and children and grandchildren enjoying the spectacle from the roof. And lest this privilege should excite jealousy in other households, three other Denshavians were hanged with him … ages of the four hanged men respectively, 60, 50, 22 and 20.

Hanging, however, is the least sensational form of public execution: it lacks those elements of blood and torture for which the military and bureaucratic imagination lusts. So, as they had room for only one man on the gallows, and had to leave him hanging half an hour to make sure work and give his family plenty of time to watch him swinging (“slowly turning round and round on himself,” as the local papers described it), thus having two hours to kill as well as four men, they kept the entertainment going by flogging eight men with fifty lashes each: eleven more than the utmost permitted by the law of Moses in times which our Army of Occupation no doubt considers barbarous. But they Moses conceived his law as being what he called the law of God, and not simply an instrument for the gratification of his own cruelty and terror.

It is unspeakably reassuring to learn from the British official reports laid before parliament that “due dignity was observed in carrying out the executions,” that “all possible humanity was shewn in carrying them out,” and that “the arrangements were admirable, and reflect great credit on all concerned.” As this last testimonial apparently does not refer to the victims, they are evidently officially considered not to have been concerned in the proceedings at all. Finally, Lord Cromer certifies that the Englishman in charge of the proceedings is “a singularly humane man, and is very popular amongst the natives of Egypt by reason of the great sympathy he has always shewn for them.” It will be seen that Parliamentary Papers, Nos. 3 and 4., Egypt, 1906, are not lacking in unconscious humor. The official walrus pledges himself in every case for the kindliness of the official carpenter.


Edinburgh Evening News, June 29, 1906

Shaw’s determination to humanize the “natives” by analogy to English country squires unsurprisingly stands in stark contrast to the dominant thrust of domestic reportage — which consistently describes the affair as an unprovoked attack or (still better) an outrage. Shaw, however, was far from alone in his sentiment: many British elites were discomfited by the harsh and arbitrary treatment meted out in the imperial hinterlands. Another writer, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, bemoaned the “abominable case” and took up an editorial pen in the Egyptians’ defense — albeit more in hope than expectation, for as he confided to his diary, “English feeling on these matters has become absolutely callous, and I believe if Cromer ordered a dozen of the villagers to be crucified or impaled, no serious objection would be made to it here.” And he was right to despair.

Still, gentlemen of a liberal conscience have the luxury down the decades of forgetting the individual atrocities of empire.‡

Few in the West recognized the allusion when, following 2005 bombings in London by Islamic terrorists, Ayman al-Zawahiri “announced that Britain was one of Islam’s worst enemies; it had been responsible for the deaths of thousands of Muslims across the ages, from Palestine to Afghanistan, Delhi to Denshawai.” (Source)

But it had by that time been long since that the chickens of Denshawai had come home to roost. In his autobiography, Egyptian nationalist president Anwar Sadat mused on the formative influence worked upon his childhood by the sacrifice of one of the Denshawai martyrs.

[T]he ballad which affected me most deeply was probably that of Zahran, the hero of Denshway. I recall my mother reciting it to me as I lay stretched out on top of our huge rustic oven, half-asleep while my younger brothers (and our rabbits) had all fallen asleep. It appealed to me afresh every time I listened to it. Denshway was only three miles away and the ballad dealt with a real incident … Zahran was the hero of the battle against the British and the first to be hanged. The ballad dwells on Zahran’s courage and doggedness in the battle, how he walked with his head held high to the scaffold, feeling proud that he had stood up to the aggressors and killed one of them.

I listened to that ballad night after night, half-awake, half-asleep, which perhaps made the story sink into my subconscious. My imagination roamed free. I often saw Zahran and lived his heroism in dream and reverie — I wished I were Zahran.

His wish would come as near to fruition as wishes do. Sadat had the honor of announcing to the world the Egyptian Revolution of 1952 that would expel the British occupation … and thirty years later, of also giving his life for Egypt.

* Not Dickens nor Kubrick could not have bested the names of shooting party participants Captain Bull (the eventual fatality) or Brevet-Major Pine-Coffin.

** That is, running away from a bombardment of stones. It appears to be permanently obscure (and subject to partisan slanting) precisely how these factors weighed together at the moment of Bull’s death. The diagnosis is quoted in the London Times, June 25, 1906.

† The tribunal featured mixed Egyptian and British personnel, notably including Boutros Ghali, future Egyptian Prime Minister and grandfather of the eventual United Nations head Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

‡ At least, of their own empire. According to Aliens — Uneingeburgerte: German and Austrian Writers in Exile, the Third Reich produced a German-language play about the Denshawai incident by adapting Shaw’s account.

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1996: Four militants, ahead of the Khobar Towers bombing

Add comment May 31st, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1996, Saudi Arabia beheaded four Muslim militants for a car bomb attack on the Office of Program Management for the Saudi Arabian National Guard (OPM-SANG) military facility at Riyadh, killing five U.S. nationals and two Indians. All four prisoners were Sunni veterans of the Afghan War against the USSR, but they were beheaded in great haste, the Saudis having refused U.S. investigators permission to interview them.

The Kingdom’s Interior Ministry remarked at the time that the executions ought to assure that “such repulsive acts would not be repeated.”

This fanciful aspiration was conclusively nullified 25 days later when a huge truck bomb blew apart an apartment complex being used by the U.S. military, killing 19 U.S. Air Force servicemen along with a Saudi: the Khobar Towers bombing,* a bin Laden operation which might have opened an opportunity to prosecute the terrorist back before 9/11 was a twinkling in his salt-and-pepper beard, had the U.S. FBI not expediently attributed Khobar Towers to Iran-backed Shia militants.

* The 1996 truck bombing is not to be confused with the 2004 Khobar massacre.

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1986: Alec Collett, Lebanon hostage

Add comment April 16th, 2017 Headsman

On (or very near) this date in 1986, Palestinian terrorist Abu Nidal had British hostage Alec Collett hanged in revenge for the previous day’s U.S. bombing of Tripoli.

Collett, a journalist and U.N. aid worker, had been abducted in Beirut more than a year earlier.

Abu Nidal, his captor, was the brand-name terrorist of his era. Indeed, his own name was a brand: Sabri Khalil al-Banna was the name he was born into, in a wealthy Palestinian family driven to dispossession and refugee camps by the Nakba. It was the Abu Nidal organization‘s assassination attempt on Israeli diplomat Shlomo Argov that triggered Israel’s counterproductive 1982 invasion of Lebanon, perhaps (for its long-term consequences) the crowning achievement of Abu Nidal’s career.*

This very conflict brought Collett to Beirut, as an aid worker for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).

Stopped at a militia checkpoint on March 25, 1985 where he might have been taken because of an Israeli-stamped passport, Collett became one of about 100 foreigners seized as hostages by various factions over the long course of the Lebanese conflagration.

Only a few of these hostages died in their captors’ hands; they were in the main prisoners for leverage, and so efficaciously did they lever that it was these very souls that Ronald Reagan‘s U.S. administration proposed to retrieve by purchasing the (officially enemy) influence of Iran in the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal.

Confusingly shifting factional advantage has tangled Middle East politics for many a year, to be sure, and here the prospect of a negotiated release was aborted by the April 5, 1986 terrorist bombing of a Berlin discotheque frequented by U.S. soldiers — two of whom died in the blast.

This outrage proved to be the project of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who then stood in a very tense position vis-a-vis the West. Ten days after the disco attack, Reagan responded with an air raid on Libya clearly intended to assassinate Gaddafi — who fled his compound moments before it was crushed by a fleet of 2,000-pound bombs. (The bombing might or might not have slain the dictator’s infant daughter.)

This attack on Gaddafi was also an attack on that arch-terrorist Abu Nidal, whom Gaddafi had recently taken in after a former patron Saddam Hussein made a bid for respectability by expelling him from Iraq.** And it so happened that Collett’s unoffending person offered Abu Nidal the most immediate vehicle for retaliation.

It’s not completely certain that April 16 was the date of Collett’s murder, though there is no real reason to doubt his executioners’ claim on this point. The matter was confused at the time because three other dead westerners discovered on April 17 were initially reported to include Collett among their number — a claim subsequently debunked. On April 23, Collett’s captors released a grainy video of their masked prisoner being hanged;† however, the identification of the noosed man was still questioned for many years. Collett’s remains — confirmed by DNA testing — were only discovered in 2009.

The anniversary of Collet’s initial abduction, March 25, is kept annually by the United Nations as International Day of Solidarity with Detained and Missing Staff Members.

* Israel withdrew from the bloody morass three years later, having displaced the Palestinian Liberation Organization for a much more effective new resistance movement in Hezbollah. Decades later, Osama bin Laden would cite Lebanon as the event that “gave birth to a strong resolve to punish the oppressors,” including the sight of “demolished towers in Lebanon” to inspire a bit of tower-toppling of his own.

** Abu Nidal had only recently on Gaddafi’s behalf hijacked an EgyptAir flight, killing dozens.

† I have thus far not been able to locate this video online.

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1970: Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, by the Montoneros

Add comment June 1st, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1970, Argentine general and former dictator Pedro Eugenio Aramburu was shot by a band of Peronist student guerrillas.

Aramburu (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was one of the major figures behind the 1955 Revolución Libertadora that sent populist president Juan Peron fleeing to Spain. Peron was initially succeeded in the presidency by another general named Eduardo Lonardi, but before 1955 was out Aramburu had overthrown and replaced him, too; Aramburu ran the ruling junta until elections in 1958, maintaining a sharp ban on any vestige of Peronism — including even the mere mention of the exiled ex-president. He also had General Juan Jose Valle shot for plotting a Peronist coup in 1956.

The next two decades saw Argentina’s political institutions grow ever more painfully brittle, as shaky civilian governments were toppled in turn by equally shaky military rulers, every turn of the wheel eroding the country’s norms of orderly governance without attaining a stable political coalition. The charismatic Aramburu remained throughout a pole of anti-Peronism, which mattered as Peron’s long shadow grew and his return to Argentina began to seem likely.*

The faltering legitimacy of the government in turn spawned leftist guerrilla movements like the Peronist Montoneros, who entered Argentina’s political fray in gobsmacking style by abducting Aramburu in an affair the guerrillas called “Operation Pindapoy”.

On May 29, 1970 — Argentina’s Army Day and also the one-year anniversary of a suppressed popular uprising against the military government — two of the Montoneros terrorists disguised themselves as junior officers and presented themselves at Aramburu’s unguarded Buenos Aires apartment, claiming that the army had assigned them as his escort. The ruse worked like a charm.

With their prey in hand, the “officers” and their confederates stuffed him in a Peugeot and followed clattering dirt roads to evade police checkpoints, arriving that evening to a safehouse they had readied in the hamlet of Timote. There, a trio of young radicals constituted themselves a revolutionary tribunal and put Aramburu on “trial” for the murder of Gen. Valle and his fellow Peronist rebels fourteen years before.

Mario Firmenich, one of the dozen young Montoneros kidnappers, would later describe the three days they spent with their celebrated prisoner for a magazine: “His attitude was calm. If he was nervous, he controlled it.” Firmenich, who is still alive, has always insisted as he said then that their action evinced the popular will. “For the first time the people could sit on the bench and judge and condemn. That is what the Montoneros performed in Timote: to show the populace, that, beyond the pitfalls, legal chicanery and repression, there was a path to true justice, which stems from the will of a people.”

True justice was executed in the basement of their hideout. Having announced the inevitable verdict to Gen. Aramburu half an hour before, the leader of the cell shot him in the chest and then the head. The Montoneros then buried him, still bound and gagged, right there in the cellar — slathered with quicklime in an effort to hide the evidence.

It was a shocking blow to a fragile polity, and would help speed the (probably inevitable) fall of Gen. Juan Carlos Ongania, who was ousted from the presidency just a week after Aramburu’s murder.**

To grasp the profound effect of the kidnapping and murder of Aramburu it is necessary only to consult any Argentine periodical issued after May 29, 1970. Shortly after the kidnapping, Ongania announced in a televised speech that the death penalty would be imposed for crimes against public order. This decree was insufficient, however, to alleviate the feeling that order and authority had collapsed for good. (Source)

During Argentina’s subsequent dictatorship (and its escalating “Dirty War” against, amongst other subversives, the Montoneros), the town square of Timote was named for its unwilling guest Aramburu. That name has been changed in recent years.

* Peron did in fact return in 1973, amid bloodshed.

** Aramburu was probably involved in a plot to get rid of Ongania, whose credibility had gone to pieces in early 1970 quite independent of the Montoneros. Firmenich suspects this might account for the ex-president’s compliance with the purported junior officers who abducted him.

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2004: Nick Berg, by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi

Add comment May 7th, 2016 Headsman

Twenty-six-year-old American communications contractor Nick Berg was beheaded a hostage in Iraq on this date in 2004 — allegedly by the personal hand of Al-Qaeda in Iraq chief Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.

A veteran of the mujahideen who drove the Soviets out of Afghanistan in the 1980s, Zarqawi spent most of the 1990s in a Jordanian prison but was amnestied just in time to rejoin militant Islam before it became a post-9/11 boom industry.

Zarqawi’s Jordanian terrorist group Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, founded in 1999, transitioned with the American invasion of Iraq into the Al-Qaeda franchise in that country, a feared prosecutor of the sectarian civil war there, and the lineal forbear of the present-day Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL).

It also became a lusty early adopter of the emerging beheading-video genre: an ancient penalty perfectly adapted for the digital age.

This ferocious group was a severe mismatch for Berg, a Pennsylvanian freelance radio tower repairman (and pertinently, a Jew) who set up his Prometheus Methods Tower Service in the northern city of Mosul* in the months following the 2003 U.S. invasion. This was also around the time that American occupation forces’ abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib came to light — a powerful excuse for blood vengeance.

Berg vanished from Baghdad in April 2004, and was not seen in public again until the whole world saw him: the unwilling feature of a May 11 video titled Sheik Abu Musab al-Zarqawi slaughters an American infidel with his hands and promises Bush more.

“We tell you that the dignity of the Muslim men and women in Abu Ghraib and others is not redeemed except by blood and souls,” a voice says. “You will not receive anything from us but coffins after coffins … slaughtered in this way.”

Warning: Mature Content. This is both a political document of our time, and a horrifying snuff film. Notice that Berg appears in an orange jumpsuit, a seeming allusion to Muslim prisoners being held by the United States at Guantanamo Bay.

Twenty-five months later to the day, Zarqawi was assassinated by a U.S. Air Force bombing.

* As of this writing, Mosul is occupied by Zarqawi’s creation, the Islamic State.

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2014: Thirteen Xinjiang terrorists

Add comment June 16th, 2015 Headsman

One year ago today, China executed as terrorists 13 separatist militants.

According to Xinhua, the 13 were condemned in 7 different cases from Aksu, Turpan and Hotan — all prefectures of the western Xinjiang region.


Xinjiang. By TUBS [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Muslim Uighurs comprise a near-majority of that province’s population, and although Xinjiang is formally an “autonomous region” many Uighurs find it not nearly autonomous enough. Going tension has fomented a separatist movement that has appeared to gain strength — or at least visibility — during the past decade, including multiple spectacular and deadly terrorist attacks as well as several riots.

“The execution of criminals involved in terrorist attacks and violent crimes answers the calls of all ethnic groups, deters criminal activities, and demonstrates the resolve of the Communist Party of China and the government in cracking down on terrorism,” a Chinese court spokesman said, speaking of three of this date’s condemned who were sentenced together for a series of attacks in Lukqun (Turpan prefecture) that slew 24 police officers.

The executions on this day were surely coordinated for their demonstrative effect, days after Chinese authorities announced a “one-year crackdown” in Xinjiang one day after two SUVs bombed a market in Ürümqi, killing 43 people and injuring over 90 others.

Notwithstanding China’s strenuous attempt to frame the “crackdown” as one targeting only terrorists, security measures have bled insensibly into a crackdown on Muslims, targeting conservative Islamic cultural markers like veiled faces. It’s a sure bet that we haven’t heard the last of this flashpoint.

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2013: A day in the death penalty around the world

Add comment January 16th, 2015 Headsman

United States

The first U.S. execution of 2013 was that of Robert Gleason, Jr. in Virginia last January 16.

Gleason was serving a life sentence for another murder when he conned a fellow-prisoner into letting him tie his hands as part of a supposed escape attempt. Instead, Gleason choked the poor bastard to death with a urine-soaked sponge.

The killer said he did this precisely in order to be executed.

“I murdered that man cold-bloodedly,” he told a reporter in 2010. “I planned it and I’m gonna do it again. Someone needs to stop it. The only way to stop me is to put me on death row.”

He was as good as his word. That summer, he got a necklace around the throat of a prisoner in a neighboring solitary pen and horribly throttled him to death. Virginia obliged Gleason’s heart’s desire with a death sentence that the killer did not contest.

Unusually, Gleason chose to die in the state’s 104-year-old oak electric chair, rather than by lethal injection. Virginia at the time was one of 10 states still allowing an inmate to choose electrocution, but Gleason was the first person to do so since 2010.

His last words: “Well, I hope Percy ain’t going to wet the sponge. Put me on the highway to Jackson and call my Irish buddies. Pog mo thoin. God bless.” As was widely reported after the fact, Pog mo thoin is Gaelic for “kiss my ass.”

His last words — and everything else about him — are remembered here by a reporter who got to know Gleason during his three-year journey to the death chamber.


Somalia

Dennis Allex, an agent of French intelligence held captive for over three years by al-Shabaab militants, was allegedly summarily executed on January 16 following an unsuccessful French raid to free him.

Allex, whose name is thought to be a pseudonym, had been seized in Mogadishu in 2009 and forced during his captivity to broadcast his captors’ demands.

Following the French intervention in Mali last January — an event potentially raising the danger for French hostages throughout the Islamic world — a commando unit attempted to free Allex on January 12.

The French suspect that Allex might have been killed during that operation. His captors, however, claimed that Allex survived it, and that they thereafter “reached a unanimous decision to execute the French intelligence officer, Dennis Allex.

“With the rescue attempt, France has voluntarily signed Allex’s death warrant”


Iran

On this date in 2013, Iran hanged a man in public in the city of Sabzevar.

Also in Sabzevar on the same day, another man suffered a spectacular public lashing.

Still another prisoner was reportedly hanged privately in Mashhad on January 16 in Iran.

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2006: Sheikh Zana, Erbil terrorist

1 comment September 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 2006, the government of Kurdistan hanged eleven members of an alleged “terrorist cell” in its capital of Erbil.

Sheikh Z(h)ana Abdel Karim Barzinji and his gang “were involved in kidnapping and killing innocent people,” per media accounts, and security forces made sure to provide to television statements dubiously adulterated videotapes of confessions they had wrung from the group. The confessions copped to beheadings and bomb attacks, as well as to gay sex and child rape.

It was the first known judicial execution in Kurdistan since it attained functional autonomy in 1992 — but authorities still delayed it in deference to the moratorium on executions in Iraq immediately following the U.S. invasion. When Baghdad resumed executions in September 2006, Erbil went ahead and did so as well.

Victoria Fontan, a scholar of peace and conflict studies resident in Iraq, remembered her horror at watching with Kurdish friends the stagey confession broadcast in her Voices from Post-Saddam Iraq: Living with Terrorism, Insurgency, and New Forms of Tyranny. In particular, Fontan takes note of the incendiary gay-baiting used to demonize the accused, a shaming tactic she has noted in widespread use against insurgents on Iraqi television.

This was coming at a time when Erbil had just suffered an especially bloody suicide attack, and residents were demanding answers and more security. Because I had heard of similar homosexual accusations related to al-Qaeda before, my reaction was a mix of amusement and skepticism. A gay/pedophile/Islamist/terrorist network: how convenient to discredit any insurgent effort for years to come …

The entire city was waiting for the confessions, which finally came in the most sordid of manners, interrupted with footage of gay sex, executions, and much gore. The fact that the confessions were intermittent, cut off abruptly at times, that the images of gay sex supposed to have been filmed by Sheikh Zana and his group could have been filmed by anyone even after the culprits’ arrest — in the same way that some were filmed in Abu Ghraib — was not relevant at all to the viewers of this show. My friend Rowand and his family were mesmerized and disgusted. When I expressed my skepticism, they politely dismissed it. This footage appealed to the deepest of Iraqi collective fears, the fear of being exposed as a homosexual.

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1962: Gottfried Strympe, purported terrorist

Add comment June 21st, 2014 Headsman

The novel East German polity was coming in the late 1950s to a crossroads that saw security paranoia ratchet up dramatically.

Emigration to West Germany accelerated considerably as the 1960s began, eventually giving rise to the infamous Berlin Wall.

In the countryside, forced collectivization implemented in 1960 produced resistance all its own. Agricultural output plummeted (the knock-on effects of a 1959 drought helped too); according to Patrick Major’s Behind the Berlin Wall: East Germany and the Frontiers of Power, groceries and everyday household items became markedly more difficult to procure in the early 1960s, sapping productivity throughout the economy as city workers queued for hours and black-market exchanges proliferated.

Following the Soviet Union’s great tradition of attributing economic trouble to running-dog wreckers, East Germany introduced the death penalty for politically motivated economic sabotage* — for example, the 206 cases of arson it attributed among 862 rural fires in 1960. (Figures as per Major.)

Our figure today, Gottfried Strympe, fell foul of these laws. In reality, he was no cackling secret agent but a disturbed loner.

He lurked about the eastern city of Bautzen opportunistically by turns the petty thief or the peeping tom.

Unfortunately for Strympe, who did some spells in psychiatric wards, his deviance extended past the titillation of spying a Hausfrau in her bustier to the much more menacing diversions of pyromania.

The poor man needed a social worker; what he got was the executioner. The charge sheet dramatically attributed his 28 acts of arson (crimes that each caused only minor property damage, and no human casualties) to the inspiration of “West German and American imperialists.”

Strympe, you see, had often visited a father (deceased in 1958) in West Berlin, back before the Wall sealed that city. Of course on those trips, Strympe picked over a Whitman’s sampler of western decadences, from pornography to Social Democracy. On this basis, the Stasi attributed his incendiarism to “terrorism” rooted in “an antisocial attitude strengthened by his stays in West Berlin.”

Strympe had a public show trial, the better that “the population of Bautzen will recognize the danger of communication and travel to West Berlin” (with props of said population — workers’ and civic groups — obligingly supplying the requisite demands for the traitor’s execution).

He was beheaded by Fallbeil at Leipzig on June 21, 1962.

* See Politische Strafjustiz in der Ära Ulbricht: Vom bekennenden Terror zur verdeckten Repression by Falco Werkentin.

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1902: Hirsh Lekert, Jewish assassin

Add comment June 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1902, the Jewish socialist Hirsh Lekert was hanged in Vilna (Vilnius) for his attempt on that city’s governor.

The 22-year-old shoemaker, active in the Bund since childhood, was aggrieved along with many others by repressive measures taken against that leftist council by Vilna governor Victor von Wahl — culminating with the calculated humiliation he inflicted by personally overseeing the flogging of 20 Jews and 6 Poles arrested at a May Day demonstration.

As was the style at the time, Lekert took some retaliatory potshots at the municipal dictator on May 18, 1902. He scored a couple of flesh wounds before the police on hand beat him all to hell.

And that was pretty well that. Lekert got sent to face a military tribunal with a foreordained result. But he made his bones with posterity by refusing to apologize and instead fearlessly vindicating his action as a defense of the Jewish worker’s dignity.

This carried his legend in the early 20th century Jewish community much further than one might assume.

For Jewish Workers Bund, “the first great attempt at the organization of the Jewish masses for secular and independent political activity,”* Lekert’s uncompromising embrace of revolutionary violence created an internal controversy: radical workers saw a martyred hero; elites, and the Bund officially, were much more wary of terrorism provoking official backlash in an empire where Jewish communities were still liable to be targeted by pogroms at any time. All this during a renaissance of cultural and political thought among Eastern European Jewry.

Even decades later, the esteem remaining Lekert from his sacrifice gave his name power. Another generation of Jewish terrorists — in Mandate Palestine — was incensed at the British for flogging some Irgun members, leading Menachem Begin to invoke Lekert as his justification for kidnapping several British soldiers and flogging them. (Source) The British had no stomach for this, and desisted with floggings.

Artistic tributes followed as well — folk songs; plays by Arn Kushnirov and H. Leyvik; the bust that illustrates this post; a monument in Soviet Minsk; even this appearance in a 1927 silent film called His Excellency:

And from the hellish Vilna Ghetto under Nazi occupation, the great poet of the Holocaust Abraham Sutzkever depicted his “Teacher Mira” trying to keep her students’ heads up by reminding them of the Vilna cobbler who fought back.

Her skin, a windowpane in stains of dusk,
Mira must not reveal the darkness thus.
She bites her lip, of courage she will tell:
About Hirsh Lekert, how he fought and fell.

* Koppel Pinson, “Arkady Kremer, Vladimir Medem, and the Ideology of the Jewish ‘Bund'”, Jewish Social Studies July 1945.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Jews,Lithuania,Russia,Terrorists

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