The Executioner’s Tale: A Talk With One of Yemen’s Designated Killers

As the latest global figures show a downward trend in carrying out the death penalty, one of Yemen’s executioners reflects on what he does to make extra money

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YAHYA ARHAB / EPA

A soldier, not the executioner mentioned in this story, prepares to shoot a man convicted of raping and murdering an 11-year-old in front of a prison in Sanaa, Yemen, on July 6, 2009

With a toothless grin Saleh Shamsadeen sits in the prison governor’s office, right beside the family of an inmate sentenced to death. Clasping his aging AK-47 rifle, he jokes that their lawyer is trying to take his next customer away from him. As one of Yemen’s executioners, Shamsadeen, 65, has shot dead at least 300 people on behalf of the state in a 12-year career in one of the country’s provincial prisons, far from the more congested urban penitentiaries. That number suggests far more people are being executed than is officially acknowledged.

In figures released on Wednesday, Amnesty International welcomed a downward trend in countries carrying out the death penalty, including Yemen. But the country — with at least 28 executions recorded in 2012 — ranks sixth in the world behind China, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the U.S., according to the annual report.

Executions at the prison in Ibb, Yemen’s fifth largest city, take place between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. The prisoner lies facedown on a blue tarpaulin. A doctor with a stethoscope locates the heart through the condemned man’s back and marks it with a large dot surrounded by a circle in red pen. The verdict is then read out. A brief pause ensues to allow the family of the person wronged — most likely killed — by the prisoner to decide if they are going to forgive the prisoner. If so, the proceedings will come to a halt. Shamsadeen says, in that event, he swings his gun to the sky and fires off the bullets in celebration.

(MORE: The New U.S. Way of War: Killing in the Shadows)

If the aggrieved family remains silent, however, Shamsadeen will straddle the prisoner, aim at the dot and circle and fire at least two bullets at point-blank range. On two occasions, he says, it took 10 bullets to kill the condemned.

The numbers Shamsadeen cites suggest that executions in Yemen far exceed the Amnesty International figures. Certainly the 2012 statistic of 28 seems small. “I killed 101 people in 2001,” he says, recalling his busiest year and blaming the spike in deaths on a particularly officious judge. He is currently running at about three executions a month in Ibb, where public executions were abandoned in 2004 after several gatherings came under attack by armed family members and fellow tribesmen attempting to make last-minute rescues.

Yemen is one of the most highly armed countries in the world — second only to the U.S. Shootings and gunfights are common, and many of the death sentences are handed out for murder, according to strict Shari‘a, which metes out judgment on the basis of an eye for an eye, a life for a life. The real figure for executions carried out in Yemen is further clouded by the country’s tribal system, which acts as a substitute to state rule of law in rural areas untouched and ungoverned by central government and where justice is carried out via tribal sheiks. How many people are executed under urf (unwritten tribal law) rather than under the dysfunctional state judicial system is unknown.

(MORE: Al-Qaeda Denies Its No. 2 in Yemen Was Killed)

Human Rights Minister Hooria Mashhour admits there are many problems within Yemen’s judicial system — including corruption — that need to be addressed, but capital punishment will not be one of them. “Our system is based on Shari‘a. For qisas [the Islamic law of retaliation] there has to be a death penalty,” she says. Families of victims can opt to be paid “blood money” instead of pressing for execution — but in one of the poorest countries in the world, few of the condemned can afford such restitution.

Figures released annually by Amnesty International since 2007 show at least 165 people have been executed in Yemen in the past five years, but the rights group admits accurate figures are hard to come by. “Finding out the number of people executed in Yemen is not easy because of this lack of information,” says Dina el-Mamoun of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program. “The tribe is more powerful than the state,” Mashhour points out. “All are equal in front of urf. But state justice at the moment doesn’t guarantee equality.”

Mashhour says Yemen’s judicial system is set for review during the current period of fragile political transition following a yearlong uprising in 2011 in which President Ali Abdullah Saleh was forced to hand over power to his deputy. The ongoing National Dialogue, launched last month, will precede the writing of a new constitution. Says Mashhour, “The National Dialogue will give us the chance to make this change to a fully independent judicial system.”

(MORE: Yemen: Ex-President Saleh Leaves for Saudi Arabia)

Shamsadeen, who was a prison guard for 20 years before taking on the role of executioner, likes to practice gallows humor — few other people are qualified. “I was in the appeals court once when a prisoner had their death sentence overturned,” he says. “When the judge made the announcement, I stood up and shouted, ‘I object. I object.’” He laughs at his own joke.

But the regularity of the executions takes its toll on the executioners as well. Talking to TIME on the night before carrying out a death penalty, Shamsadeen reflected on his work, for which he receives $140 a month for basic guard duty and an extra $47 per execution. “I am not happy to kill people,” Shamsadeen says before describing how on one occasion he refused the order to execute an inmate. Mohammed Taher Samoum was 13 when he was arrested after playing with a gun that went off and killed a friend in 1999. Eleven years later Shamsadeen was ordered to execute him. “I’d known him since he was a young boy in the prison. He was like a son to me.” That apparently has saved the young man’s life — so far. The other prison guards, he explains, “said I must have a heart of stone [because of the work], and if I didn’t have the heart to kill him, no one would.”

Asked if he would recommend his job to anyone else, he replies, “Anyone except my children.” Then he oils his rifle and checks his bullets in preparation for the following morning. “The pain keeps you awake at night. I can’t sleep sometimes remembering the people I’ve killed.”

MORE: Saudi Arabia Denies Report of Man Sentenced to Be Surgically Paralyzed

10 comments
Declaration1776
Declaration1776

@NoEqual: You make too much sense for the rabble here to comprehend.  Those folks have it bass ackwards:

If harsh punishment made people behave properly and obey laws, Yemen should be a paradise shouldn't it? Fear of the penal system is not the solution; respect for life is. You do not further respect for life by executing people en mass or by cruel punishment.


clb45para
clb45para

I wonder what the rational for this article is?  To show that people wo own firearms are some how equated to 3rd world country executioners?  To underline the fact that AK-47's are inherently evil?  I wonder............

AdrianSloan
AdrianSloan

@NoEqual If someone raped and kill my son I would not hesitate for one second to erased that person from the face of the planet. Retarded you say? You are either way more evolve than the common man or you have never have had a child to understand what I am saying. 

The problem is that people no longer fear the penal system, the problem is people having more kids than what they can properly educate or nurture. 

In this world there are people who enjoy killing other human beings, there are people who are beyond repair, how to deal with this issue is the real conundrum; sociopaths, psychopaths and the likes should be remove from society at all costs. 

Many of the people incarcerated today are beyond repair and although it may seem and actually be barbarian to think about executing those who rape and molested children, it may be the only deterrent against that kind of evil.  

NoEqual
NoEqual like.author.displayName 1 Like

Don't kill people, its against the law.

We're going to kill you because you didn't obey the law.

Hmmm... Sounds pretty retarded to me.  In all honesty, only someone suffering from a severe superiority complex could make claims that, as Men and Women, we are all equal, and therefore all God. 

And then turn around and say that because you didn't follow the law of God, that you're going to be executed.  

Seriously retarded. There is no other word to describe it accurately.

JasonDowd
JasonDowd

@NoEqual The pragmatic view is that it's really about money. I see know reason why we should pay for a murderer to have "three hots and a cot" for the rest of their lives when there are good people who are doing without those very things. A bullet is just so much cheaper.

If we were a country running a massive budget surplus, then I would find it more acceptable to indulge in such luxuries. But we are not.

On the other hand, I would also find it more acceptable if only the people who opposed the death penalty had to pay the taxes to keep these people alive. But that's not the case either.

GodthesUpremeBeing
GodthesUpremeBeing like.author.displayName 1 Like

Sharia law has no place in the 21st Century. An eye for eye makes the whole world blind. Not killing these nasty scum rapists etc. is what makes us civilized. Religion is a human disease and evolution is the only cure.

jimmyjimmyjimmy111
jimmyjimmyjimmy111

Hey America: MIND YOUR OWN DAMN BUSINESS. IF THEY WANT TO EXECUTE CHILD RAPISTS AND YOU WANT TO CODDLE THEM THATS YOUR BUSINESS. KEEP YOUR NOSE OUT OF THE WORLD DAMN! 

WilliamBarnes
WilliamBarnes

@jimmyjimmyjimmy111 You certainly got up on the wrong side of the bed, didn't you? The fact that America DOESN'T "keep your nose out of the world ", as you so quaintly put it shows how uninformed you are of how America has done so much to further the cause of freedom and human rights the world over. Although America is not perfect now and can only hope to be as perfect as the human condition permits it is still responsible for a great deal of the goodness which it continues to emanate and is thanked for the world over. If you can't see this, you are blind. A world without the USA would be a world without the vast American contribution toward everything under the sun, from A to Z. I also don't agree about alot of which American politicians have done with American funds, but the good far outweight the bad. The problem you are ranting about is the same problem the entire world faces. How to educate children in a world of continuing growing adversity and violence, where parents and entire societies are obliged to let their kids be raised in the streets so they can dedicate their lives to scraping away to maintain a measly existence for their families. Even with all the defects American society has, it is ALL we have and must protect it as we try to perfect it, and that includes being concerned about EVERYTHING ELSE happening in the world and not following your ranting posture. If you are American, you should be ashamed of yourself.

WilliamBarnes
WilliamBarnes

@jimmyjimmyjimmy111 You certainly got up on the wrong side of the bed, didn't you? the fact that America DOESN'T "keep your nose out of the world ", as you so quaintly put it shows how uninformed you are of how America has done so much to further the cause of freedom and human rights the world over. Although America is not perfect now and can only hope to be as perfect as the human condition permits it is still responsible for a great deal of the goodness which it continues to emanate and is thanked for the world over. If you can't see this, you are blind. A world without the USA would be a world without the vast American contribution toward everything under the sun, from A to Z. I also don't agree about alot of which American politicians have done with American funds, but the good far outweight the bad. The problem you are ranting about is the same problem the entire world faces. How to educate children in a world of continuing growing adversity and violence, where parents and entire societies are obliged to let their kids be raised in the streets so they can dedicate their lives to scraping away to maintain a measly existence for their families. Even with all the defects American society has, it is ALL we have and must protect it as we try to perfect it, and that includes being concerned about EVERYTHING ELSE happening in the world and not following your ranting posture. If you are American, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Thetruthteller
Thetruthteller

@WilliamBarnes @jimmyjimmyjimmy111Hey, Billy, I'm sure Jimmy would have gotten the (rather lengthy message) the first time around. :) (On another note, is it just me, or is that doc grinning away like nobody’s business? Hah!)

Anyway, let me paraphrase a little story I read a long time ago; it goes something like this: a Sufi judge was once trying a case in a village involving two men with a dispute. After the first had given his side of the matter, the Sufi said, matter-of-factly, "You're right." With some trepidation, his adversary proceeded to give his own version, at which the judge again said, "You're right." A man from among the audience squatting around quickly stood up and cried out, "Judge, they can't BOTH be right!" At which the Sufi declared, "You're right!"

Well, the story is most likely apocryphal but let me be the third man: You guys are both right. There are, indeed, many benefits of American involvement in the world at large, AND child rapists better start thinking about those Last Will and Testaments they've been putting off (at least in Yemen and other no-nonsense societies). Cheers.