Sadeq Khalkhali
Saadegh Khalkhaali
صادق خلخالي

Iran's "hanging judge," Shi'i Islamic cleric, member of parliament, 1926 - 2003

Born to a farmer near the Iranian town of Khalkhal (from which his surname is derived), Sadeq Khalkhali began an inauspicious boyhood that would lead him to become one of Iran's most famous revolutionaries. He was internationally renowned for his judicial enthusiasm and the glee he took in execution. He was also a showman, always seizing opportune moments to exhibit shocking, abrasive, and often cruel behavior that would broadcast around the world. As modern Iran slowly moved toward a reassessment of the role of religion in government, he found himself in a culture foreign to the giddy times of Fundamentalist Islam utopia he had known in his youth. He tried to adapt, speaking in defense of dissidents and supporting moderate, reformist President Muhammad Khatami, but in view of his past behavior, these gestures of reconciliation were taken with mistrust and some derision. Khalkhali died from old age and the complications of a stroke he had suffered a year prior on November 26th, 2003. He left a wife and son.

In his youth, Khalkhali attended religious schools, one of the best paths of education for poor, young men at the time, and completed his studies to become a cleric at a seminary in the holy city of Qom. A member of a generation of radical Shia clerics emerging in the 1950s, filled with passionate hatred of the American-backed Shah regime, he spent his time between the seminary, jail, and exile for such offenses as labeling the Shah's hero, Cyrus the Great, a degenerate sodomite. During his time of persecution, he cultivated a festering desire for vengeance against all members and supporters of the Shah. It would fuel his bloodthirst for decades to come.

In 1971, at the age of 52, Khalkhali's efforts and those of his compatriot clerics bore fruit. Under pressure of a general uprising, the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi fled the country, leading to a deceptively bloodless revolution that placed High Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini at the head of a new Islamic government. As one of the Ayatollah's first appointments, Khalkhali was elevated to the position of president of the Revolutionary Courts. Lusting for retribution against his erstwhile repressors, Khalkhali immediately set to work. He later claimed that, in the first four months alone, he killed over 400 officials and army officers of the previous regime. One of his most famous defendants was the Shah's longest standing prime minister, Amir Abbas Hoveida. To prevent any interference from more liberal members of the new government, Khalkhali ordered a total halt to passage into or out of the prison where the trial was held and disconnected all phones. After heckling Hoveida, without the presence of lawyer or jury, Khalkhali summarily declared a sentence of execution. He himself escorted Hoveida outside, where one shot was heard. Returning to the court, Khalkhali gleefully announced that the sentence had been carried out.

Khalkhali possessed total authority over his courtroom, which he held in a wide variety of locations including a school classroom, upon whose roof defendants were hanged. He defined all laws, legal motions, court practices, and sentences according to his whim. The only consistent element to his personalized judicial system was the death penalty, applied to all crimes. He executed indiscriminately, sending men, women, and children as young as 14 to their deaths. Even those later proved innocent were of no concern to him. He happily quipped that he had merely sent them to heaven. His work was brisk and efficient. Many trials lasted only a few minutes, and Khalkhali was capable of sentencing more than 10 defendants a day. He was found of making jokes during the trials. V.S. Naipaul, who visited and spoke with Khalkhali periodically, later described the members of the court as, "[throwing] themselves about with laughter."

He burst into the collective consciousness of the United States during the Iranian Hostage Crisis. When two helicopters crashed in a sandstorm during the ill-fated Operation Eagle Claw, attempting to forcibly rescue prisoners seized from the American embassy, Khalkhali made a famous appearance at the scene, poking at the dead bodies. He later appeared on broadcast television, gloating, as the bodybags were opened and displayed to the world under his order.

His targets were not limited to former government members or foreign armed forces. Khalkhali was also assigned to narcotics offenders, Kurdish, Turkmen, and Arab minority rebels, Marxists, dissidents, and prisoners on hunger strike. He executed them dilligently. As an extra-curricular activity, he led an assault on the tomb of the shah's ancestors in 1980. After 200 militia men worked with bulldozers and high explosives for 20 days, the tomb was a pile of rubble and the bones of the dead lay smashed, scattered across the desert.

Removed from his position as judge by President Abolhassan Bani-Sadr for the unaccounted disappearance $14 million worth of confiscated drugs and fines, Khalkhali instigated the president's impeachment. At the parliament hearing, while the crowd roared for Bani-Sadr's hanging, Khalkhali took the spotlight on the parliament balcony and clenched his fingers around his neck with a grin. Bani-Sadr only escaped death by fleeing the country dressed as a woman. Khalkhali expressed disappointment.

Following the departure of Bani-Sadr, a blody purge struck the government and media. After resistance terrorists bombed the Islamic Republican Party's headquarters, the government staged a massive retaliation. Khalkhali declared every citizen to have the right to play judge, jury, and executioner, dispensing with troublesome formalities to rid the republic of all contamination. Victims were strung up along the streets of Tehran, hung eight at a time. The age of treason was lowered and children as young as nine died at the hands of the judicial system.

By 1982, the fervor for massacre died down, and Khalkhali's own influence as a judge abated. He assumed a position as member of parliament in 1984, representing the city of Qom and generally well-liked by his constituents. After the death of his protector, Ayatollah Khomeini, the more moderate government of the late eighties began to see Khalkhali as an embarrassment. In 1991, his candidacy for MP was rejected by the Council of Guardians.

He retired to Qom, teaching seminars to ever fewer students. On a return visit, Naipaul described him entering the room "step by dragging step, very small, completely bald, baby-faced without his turban...eyes without mischief though he wished to dramatize his situation and needed pity." He published a memoir entitled Ayatollah Khalkhali Remembers. His health deteriorated, and in 2000 he suffered a stroke. Though he voiced support for President Khatami in his struggles against the anti-reform Ayatollahs, this tepid defense of democracy and due process hardly seemed enough to absolve him of responsibility for those who had criticized his past pursuit of relentless slaughter.

After undergoing surgery in Tehran, he died on November 26th, 2003 at age 77. His passing marks also the gradual passing of the old Islamic regime, bloated with vitriol and thirsty for blood, as the people of Iran advocate for democratic reform.

"Obituary: Sadeq Khalkhali," The Economist, December 13, 2003.
"Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali," The Guardian, December 1, 2003.,3604,1096666,00.html
"Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali - obituary,", November 30, 2003.
"Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali, Iran's 'hanging judge'," Chicago Sun-Times, November 28, 2003.
"Sadeq Khalkhali or Saadegh Khalkhaali died,"

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