Darius Rejali, "Executions and Executioners" (Encyclopedia Iranica) Forthcoming

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Executions are capital punishments performed by state officers. This entry covers executions from the Safavid period to the modern age (for pre-Islamic executions, see Khalili, passim; Amir Ala'i, pp. 27-31). Modern executioners inflict death at a precise time according to a rule, e.g. the firing squad. But it would be misleading to use this modern understanding to study the history of Iranian executions. This is because older executions comprised elaborate ceremonies that included ritual parades, music, poetry, preliminary torture, post-death physical mutiliation, and public display for some time after death. To this, we must add the suspense that the execution parade could be stopped suddenly by a pardon. Executions then were complex practices that revealed social, religious, and political relations and not merely judicial ones.

Because Qajar and Safavid authorities were despots, one assumes their executions were idiosyncratic. But this is not so. Classical Iranian executions may have lacked the predictability associated with a legal code, but common techniques guided the way individuals were executed. Executions had strong symbolic dimensions, linking the crime to the punishment. When Muhammad Salih criticized the ruler, his mouth was sewn shut; then he was cast from a minaret in a jar (Browne, 1959, p. 97). A Safavid barber who shaved poorly had his hand cut off before he was executed (Chardin, p. 58). A Qajar baker who overcharged for bread was baked alive in his oven (Serena, p. 133). Some executions were even theatrical. Mullah Fathullah, Nasser id-Din Shah's would-be regicide, was wounded in the same place he had injured the Shah before his execution (Sheil, p. 280). When Shah Ismail defeated Shaybani the Uzbek in battle, the body was divided into parts and sent to different places. Ismail had an ambassador take the hand to Shaybani's ally and cast it on his skirt saying "Thou didst say 'my hand on Shaybak Khan's skirt'; lo, his hand is now on thy skirt." (Browne, 1959, p. 65)

Accordingly, executions had to be public and their effects were meant to teach and deter others. In the cities, the condemned was paraded through the streets accompanied by music. He was dismembered in public places. His mutilated body would be hung on gates. Along the roads, brigands were stuck into pits, head or legs sticking out, as a warning to others. When tax revenues were low in 1746, Nadir Shah built towers of skulls from Isfahan to Kirman (Avery, p. 50).

Executions were also status rituals. Everyone was expected to conduct themselves well. The condemned marked their deaths with poetry. They acted decorously despite unbearable pain. Ideally, the execution was a semi-voluntary event: by participating calmly, the condemned acknowledged his guilt and validated the judicial system. Likewise, executioners honored the condemned and fulfilled their requests. They marked their victim's higher or lower status by the manner in which they conducted the executions. The Grand Vizier, Amir Kabir, named how he died (his wrists were slit in a private hot tub) (Hashemi-Rafsanjani, p. 440) while a slave executed in the market place in 1810 was quartered like a sheep, but was denied the mercy given to sheep of having his throat cut first (Malcolm, p. 454). Women's bodies were not exposed by executions; they were lapidated or cast from high towers or strangled privately.

Finally executions were political rituals in which the Shah manifested his power over life and death. This power was an extension of the Shah's power to make war on society's enemies (Lambton, 1955, pp. 137-148; Lambton, 1970, p. 189; Calder, p. 6), and some of the most spectacular executions in Iranian history happened in this context. Muhammad Khan Qajar carried out the ultimate communal execution in Kirman. He ordered his soldiers to decapitate 600 rebels, hang two heads on each of 300 other captives, march these figures 120 miles in front of horses, execute the second group, and then build minarets out of their remaining bodies. He then had his soldiers cut off the ears and blinded all the city notables and cast them from the castle to their deaths (Himmat-Kirmani, p. 147; Parizi, p. 502-505).

Performing executions fell to mirghazabs or court executioners led by the Hajib id-Dowleh. Qajar mirghazabs were clearly distinguished from other court stewards (ferrashes) by marks on their hats. Executions involved two or more mirghazabs, but who actually executed the victim was determined by rotation. After the execution, mirghazabs would go through the bazaar collecting an executioner's tax from merchants. The Hajib id-Dowleh took his share, divided the remainder among the mirghazabs with the actual executioner getting an extra share. In addition, Hajib id-dowleh had rights to the victim's clothes. He also demanded payment for the knife used to execute the criminal from the victim's family.(Amir Ala-i, pp. 301-303; Vahidniya, p. 41). When, in the 1980s, the government began charging families for the cost of executioner's bullets, they were resuscitating this ancient right.

While being an executioner was a profession, amateurs were invited to execute. Townsfolk lapidated adulterers. In 1850, Nassir id-Din Shah distributed his would-be regicides to different nobles, soldiers, servants, and bazaar craftsmen. (Itizad as-Saltaneh, p. 41-43; Fasai, p. 304; Serena, 35; Sheil, pp. 276-280). Once these executions were over, the mirghazabs presented shirini or sweetmeats to all the state ministers "as a mark of their admission into the brotherhood."(Sheil, p. 279)

Mirghazabs attended to the manner in which they cut wounds. The Safavid doctor Muhammad includes a section on judicial surgery in his medical treatise. He weighs penal cuts in terms of how much pain would be caused by one technique or another; this was not a matter left to the individual executioners (Elgood, p. 183, Vahid-Niya, p. 303). Likewise during the Qajar period, slitting the throat involved a set of graduated pains from a standard technique (illustrated in Vahidniya, pp. 32-33; Amir Ala-i, p. 303) to full beheading to pulling the head out of the body using a cow.

Classical executioners used a remarkable range of capital techniques (Browne, 1959, p. 56, 97; Rejali, pp. 18-26; Amir Ala-i, pp. 36-53). Well-known ones include lapidation, strangulation, bayonetting, disemboweling, burning victims alive, cutting the victim's throat; quartering the condemned; skinning the victim alive; and pouring molten led down the throat. Others are forgotten. Safavid executioners often hung major notables in cages where they were roasted alive over fires or caked with honey to attract wasps and then blown from mortars . Qajar executions included suffocating the individual in a carpet or re-enacting the crime on the criminal. Sham'i ajjin involved making cuts into the body in multiple places and lighting burning candles in them until the person expired. Another sanguinary technique involved strapping the victim to a cannon and blowing a cannon ball through his chest.

By 1890, these forms of execution had been abandoned for the public hanging (Curzon, p. 457; Rejali, pp. 33-35). In 1896, Mirza Reza Kirmani, Nassir id-Din Shah's assassin, died on the gallows (Browne, 1966, p. 40; Afzal ul-Mulk, pp. 32-33; Zahir id-Dowleh, pp. 50-52). This constrasts sharply with Mullah Fathullah who had tried to commit the same crime in 1850. He died in the Sham'i Ajjin, and his body was then quartered and blown from cannons (Sheil, p. 276). It is difficult to explain this dramatic change since it occurs prior to the the Constitutional Revolution or rapid economic modernization. Building on a thesis by Jalal Al-e Ahmad (Al-e Ahmad, pp. 100-101), Rejali has argued that in Iran, political modernization in fact preceded economic and legal modernization in the Qajar period, contrary to current accounts of Iranian modernization, and that penal modernization was a feature of this trend (Rejali, pp. 33-62; 145-160).

By Muzzafar id-Din Shah's reign, virtually all urban executions were public hangings. During the Constitutional Revolution, the condemned died on the gallows or before firing squads. The Pahlavi's introduced few innovations in this area. Under Reza Shah, Dr. Ahmadi inflicted death by injecting air bubbles into a patient's vein, but this was not institutionalized (Baraheni, p. 42).

Death by firing squad and hanging account for most Iranian executions today (Amnesty International, 1990, pp. 6, 9, 10-11, 35). For example, a study of 6,800 executed Mujahidin shows that 92 percent died by firing squad, 4.5 percent by torture, and 3 percent by hanging (Abrahamian, pp. 225-226). The current Islamic Penal Code appears to restore Islamic punishments including rajm (lapidation) and salb (crucifixion). However, there has been no reported case of crucifixion (Amnesty International, 1987, p. 58). Since the mid-1980s, observers have recorded several beheadings and several dozen lapidations (Amnesty International, 1990, pp. 6, 10, 44). Between 1995 and 1997, there were 4 recorded cases of lapidation (United Nations, 1997, Section 15). But even if there were over 200 cases, they would still constitute less than 10% of the officially reported executions and an even smaller fraction of the real figure. If there has been a general return to more traditional punishments today, it is a return not to classical Iranian executions but rather to the early modern forms introduced by Nassir id-Din Shah Qajar.

In 1996, Iran, China, Ukraine and Russia accounted for 92% of executions worldwide. (Amnesty International homepage).Since 1994, the United Nations has repeatedly condemned the "high" and "excessive" number of executions in Iran (UNCHR cited in Lawson, p. 881, United Nations, 1994; United Nations, 1997). Iranian government reports indicate the number of executions in the 1980s have varied from a low of 142 (1988) to 1,500 individuals (1989) (for a year by year count, see Rejali, p. 123). Recent figures are listed below:

1991 1992 1993-1994 1995 1996 1997
750 330 N/A 50 110 est. 200

(Sources: Amnesty International, 1992, p. 9; Amnesty International, 1993, p. 6; Amnesty International 1997: United Nations, 1997) .

As under the Pahlavis, today most executions occur in prisons. Prisoners are often required to watch executions. Prison officials do not always notify the public if executions have occurred. Occasional public executions are carefully contrived. Early public hangings had created public sympathy for the condemned (Abrahamian, p. 220). Today, public executions are reserved for crimes calculated to raise moral outrage such as adultery, prostitution, pimping, homosexuality, and narcotics trafficking. In anti-drug campaigns, the condemned are usually hung on the hooks of cranes mounted on lorries and paraded through the streets but the lorries do not stop anywhere for long.(Amnesty International, 1990, pp. 6-9, 28) The regime also characterizes the dead as drug-traffickers even when they are political prisoners. The government calculates correctly that there is less sympathy domestically and internationally for "immoral crimes."


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