Yesterday I wrote about a picture of an execution in Iran which went around the world. It showed a woman called Samereh in the act of slapping a young man called Balal, who had killed her son in a street brawl. Balal had been sentenced to death, and Samereh’s role, as mother of the victim, was to carry out the execution by pushing Balal off the chair he was standing on to strangle to death in front of her and his own family, who were watching from a few feet away.
Instead, Samereh said later, as she slapped Balal, she felt the anger leaving her body. As she put it “I felt the rage vanish within my heart. I felt as if the blood in my veins began to flow again.” Weeping, she struggled to remove the noose from around Balal’s neck, calling to her husband to come and help her. As Balal was led away, half-collapsed in the arms of an imam, his sentence commuted to imprisonment, his mother Kobra broke through the barrier surrounding the execution site and went to prostrate herself before Samereh, intending to kiss her feet in gratitude. Samereh refused to allow this, saying afterwards “She is a mother too”. Instead Samereh lifted Kobra up and embraced her, both women weeping. A week later, Samereh said that finally, seven years after her son’s death, she felt at peace, and she hoped that others would learn from her tragedy that it was dangerous for young men to carry knives.
It’s not surprising that this story went round the world in social and other media. It’s got everything: the dead son appearing to his mother in dreams begging for mercy for his erstwhile friend, the last minute reprieve, the two mothers weeping in one another’s arms, all hanging off the incredibly photogenic moment of the slap. It might have been scripted by Hollywood. I nearly posted it in Twitter as an uplifting and inspirational story. But in the end I didn’t.
I didn’t because this is not a story written by Hollywood but a real execution involving real people, one of whom would, if things had gone slightly differently, have really died, and in a particularly horrible fashion. Executions happen all over the world, thousands of them a year, in forty countries. Iran itself executes hundreds people a year, mostly publicly, mostly by hanging but occasionally by stoning. It is the country with the second highest rate of capital punishment in the world, after China. (Just a note of warning. Don’t Google these things, and if you do, for God’s sake don’t look at the pictures.)
There is nothing good, noble or uplifting about the death penalty. It is grisly, brutalising and inhumane. I have been entirely against it since I was 14 years old. Tomorrow I will tell you why.