Carrying out a death sentence: ‘We are soldiers, we are used to such things’
With the sixth highest rate of executions in the world, according to Amnesty International, Yemen has made international headlines for its capital punishment policies. The Yemen Times spoke to three executioners from three different governorates. What leads these men down a path of state-sanctioned killing?
Tall and athletically-built, 30-year-old Talal Al-Talibi is the colleague that coworkers say enters the room and effortlessly lifts their spirits. With slicked-back hair and welcoming brown eyes, he pals around with other staff at Sana’a Central Prison, sipping tea and waiting for orders in his crisp, green military uniform.
Lively and always with an easy smile, Al-Talibi and his buddies—soldiers guarding the prison— would not appear out of place at any local shisha café.
But now duty calls.
An inmate is led to the courtyard of the city’s main prison, passing by the family and friends of the two men he is accused of killing. The man briefly bids farewell to his own family, who are also present, and performs the last prayer of his life before his impending execution.
A doctor draws a red circle on the inmate’s back to mark the location of his heart as Al-Talibi watches.
The man is ordered to lay on his stomach on a blanket so that he can be wrapped up after the deed is done. He is not blindfolded.
Al-Talibi approaches the eldest from each of the victims’ families, giving them the opportunity to accept an offering of blood money instead of the state-sanctioned execution.
“We would not forgive him for all the treasure in the world,” said an elderly male relative of one of the victims.
That is Al-Talibi cue to move ahead. He asks the condemned to repeat the Shahada, the Islamic profession of faith.
“There is no God but God and Mohammed is his messenger,” the condemned man recites.
Al-Talibi shoots twice into the air and then aims at the man’s heart, lodging several bullets into his body. Al-Talibi’s work is now done. The executed man’s body is wrapped in the blanket and given to his family.
Al-Talibi is the sole executioner in Sana’a, Yemen’s capital. The man who Al-Talibi executed today had been a soldier with the Central Security Forces. During a heated disagreement at a checkpoint, the man shot dead two of his colleagues. This day was the man’s state-imposed day of reckoning and just like hundreds before him, Al-Talibi was one of the few witnesses to it.
While Al-Talibi’s fellow colleagues at the prison praise him, they admit his job is one few would ever be able to do. They, like countless others, wonder out loud how someone deals with a profession so clearly aligned with death.
“In this country, everything is inherited, even a profession,” Al-Talibi said.
Like father, like son
Al-Talibi’s father was the sole executioner for Sana’a Central Prison for over 40 years. Al-Talibi remembers walking home from school one day and seeing a large crowd gathered in an open square, where executions were held before being relegated to prison grounds.
He spotted his father and ran up to greet him. The elder Al-Talibi sent him home, but the son hid in the bushes. After witnessing his father execute an inmate, Al-Talibi left his hiding spot and went up to him.
“I saw what you did, and I liked it,” he told his father, who laughed and gave him YR200, about $17 in those days. From then on, the son began accompanying his father to every execution, carrying his father’s rifle for him.
When Al-Talibi’s father died in 2004, there was no one to replace him. Soon afterwards, a death sentence was handed out to an inmate, but none of the soldiers at the prison would agree to step in as the executioner. Despite having a degree in accounting from Sana’a University, Al-Talibi approached the prison administration and asked to perform the execution.
“I was 24-years-old at the time. The prison director was impressed by my determination,” he said.
Al-Talibi’s father had taught him to shoot at an early age so he quickly passed the prison’s shooting accuracy test.
“I used to watch my father, and remember how he would shoot fearlessly. I wanted to follow his lead,” Al-Talibi said.
In his eight years of work as an executioner, Al-Talibi easily recounts the 179 prisoners, including three women, he has killed in the name of the state. In the course, he has managed to convince the families of victims to forgive 13 prisoners and pardon their execution orders.
Unlike many executioners world-wide, Al-Talibi does not cover his face while performing his job. He says he has nothing to hide.
“If they want to come after me, it wouldn’t be hard, they know where I live,” he said. “My car was set on fire three times. I’m just doing my job, but many people don’t understand that.”
I can’t kill my friend
Yahia Al-Dailmi, 64, is the sole executioner in Hajja governorate and has been for the past 35 years.
Twelve-years-ago, he received some unexpected execution orders. His close friend, who had killed Al-Dailmi’s cousin, was sentenced to death. The three involved parties had been close friends since childhood. They were neighbors and often played and even ate together growing up.
Decades later, the condemned and Al-Dailmi’s cousin were having dinner when they found themselves in the middle of a heated argument that turned deadly. The friend shot Al-Dailmi’s cousin and killed him.
“I threw the rifle on the ground and refused to carry out the execution of my friend, but he begged me to do it,” Al-Dailmi said.
Al-Dailmi’s wife, Taqia, says she believes the man didn’t trust anyone else to kill him and so Al-Dailmi followed orders.
Unlike Al-Talibi, Al-Dailmi stumbled upon his career.
After witnessing an execution that he says was being carried out improperly, Al-Dailmi’s wife explains her husband was drawn to the profession.
“He rushed to the executioner and told him to either execute the prisoner properly or to let him do it. He carried out that execution and has been doing it ever since,” she said.
The couple has been married for 25 years. Taqia was 14 and Yahia was 39 when they married.
Taqia smiles as she remembers the day she was told she would be married to an executioner.
“I didn’t sleep for days before the wedding, complaining to everyone who would listen to me that my family was giving me to the angel of death,” she joked.
“I didn’t expect him to be so kind.”
In Hajja, Al-Dailmi is known as a pious man, with a reputation for assisting the poor through pro-bono legal work.
He is the same man who has executed 320 inmates.
‘Execution is a great job’
Mohammed Al-Mohamadi is the head of the execution department in Taiz, where he leads a five-person firing squad at Taiz Prison. Unlike Al-Dailmi, Al-Mohamadi cannot shake his association with death. Prisoners and fellow soldiers say they have a hard time saying his name without having a pit grow in their stomachs.
Al-Mohamadi is used to defending his work.
“They wonder how we function normally after executing prisoners. We are soldiers, we are used to such things,” he said. “I enjoy seeing how people fear me and how they whisper my name.”
Al-Mohamadi has been carrying out executions since 1996. At 48-years-old, he has executed 96 prisoners and has “saved the lives” of 20 by persuading the families to accept blood money in exchange for the condemned’s death.
“Execution is a great job,” said Al-Dailmi. “And I’m very happy whenever I can save a life as well.”