An eerie silence filled the air as a crowd of around 300 gathered Sunday just before sunrise in a Tehran park. They awaited the arrival of two young men who were about to die.
The condemned stood shoulder to shoulder, motionless, in front of two police trucks with two nooses hanging from extendable cranes, about 15 feet high. Black-clad executioners were inspecting the remote controls they would use to hang the men, both in their early 20s, who were convicted of stabbing a man in November and stealing his bag and the equivalent of $20.
From behind a makeshift barrier of scaffolding, the crowd jostled for position. “Let’s move to the other side,” one spectator whispered to his wife, pointing to the spot where Iranian state television cameras had been set up. “I think we will have a better view from there.”
Although every year hundreds of convicts are hanged in Iran, a public hanging in a central park in Tehran is a rare event. Most hangings take place inside prisons, according to Iranian judicial officials and international human rights organizations.
Sunday’s execution in Park-e Honarmandan (Artists Park), near the crime scene, was part of a heavy-handed offensive by Iranian authorities, who say they are trying to prevent rising crime rates from getting out of hand by setting harsh examples. In recent weeks, public executions have been stepped up, and in several large cities the police have been rounding up what they call thugs and hooligans.
Police commanders and other officials blame government mismanagement of the economy — which they say has caused a rise in unemployment and inflation — for the increase in crime. International economic sanctions have aggravated problems, many here say, leading to a record gap between rich and poor in Iran.
While no official statistics are publicly available, officials report a rise in violent crimes, mostly perpetrated by young men attacking their victims with knives to get money and other valuables. Local news media report only a fraction of the episodes, but at social gatherings of middle-class Iranians — the usual targets — horrific stories of theft, kidnapping, rape and home burglaries abound.