Middle East


Homicidal Web

Wrapped in traditional black Islamic cloaks (chadors), the female corpses first surfaced in the holy Shiite city of Mashhad last year. The 19 victims with arrest records for prostitution and drug use had been strangled with their own head scarves, their bodies dumped in public places. As the numbers grew, the Iranian press latched on to the term “spider killings” to describe the macabre methodology and ruthlessness of the murders.

“There should be a higher degree of security in a holy city,” member of parliament Fatemeh Khatami told Tehran’s government-owned Iran (July 22). And, in the view of many conservatives, less sexual scandal.

Bowing to political pressure, the police, who had ignored the case for months, arrested Said Hanai, a 39-year-old construction worker, after three murders in a two-week period in July. “I removed all trace of them. They had no value to me,” Hanai, who confessed to 16 of the 19 murders, told Iran (July 28) in a jailhouse interview. Despite a history of mental illness and a professed lack of remorse, Hanai was embraced by conservatives as a hero. He claimed that prostitutes had corrupted his neighborhood, causing his wife to be mistaken for a streetwalker.

According to Tehran’s conservative Resalaat (July 30), crowds of supporters gathered around his house on the day of his arrest, chanting, “We will protect you!” and “The unclean must be destroyed!”

The high-profile nature of the case spotlighted social ills rarely discussed in Iran, and the conservative press was quick to point fingers. “Who should be judged in Mashhad?” asked an editorial in the conservative Jomhuri Eslami (July 30). “Those who want to eliminate the sickness, or those who are at the heart of corruption?” Others took more direct jabs at the reformist government of President Muhammad Khatami as the root cause of the killings. “Prostitutes are victims of the administrative and economic system,” said an editorial in Resalaat (July 30). “Who will ensure that hundreds of other streetwalkers won’t replace the victims and dozens of others won’t replace Hanai?” The extreme rhetoric of the conservative press spurred a front-page story in the reformist Nowruz (July 31). “Conservative newspapers are exploiting the killings for their own political benefit....The murders are being portrayed as a natural reaction to growing corruption.” The image of Hanai as a paragon of morality was dispelled when, one week after his arrest, he admitted to sexually abusing the victims (Islamic Republic News Agency—IRNA, Aug. 6).

Whether Hanai is a fall guy or the true killer may never be known. Reports of additional murders surfaced after his arrest (IRNA, Aug. 1), but government sources dismissed them as copycat killings. For months, reformist newspapers have implied that conservative elements in Iran are complicit in the murders. Comparisons have been made to the unsolved killings of prominent intellectuals and journalists in the late ’90s, which also had the tacit support of many conservatives. “No one is advocating illegal action to combat moral corruption,” said one letter in Tehran’s conservative Kayhan (July 30). “But speaking out against illegal action (killing) in defense of the corrupt and filthy harms the general populace.”

December 2001 (VOL. 48, No. 12)Overline Overline Overline OverlineHeadline Headline Headline HeadlineName
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