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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Executions in Iran and North Korea

Students of the sociology of punishment are getting the rare opportunity to look back into the history of penal evolution by watching the penal behavior of two polities that are arguably throwbacks to the absolutist model of government, Iran and North Korea.

According to Nazila Fathi's reporting in the NYTimes, Iran's government was preparing to execute six protesters arrested in December protests this Sunday, for the charge of "waging war against God."

Meanwhile, AP reports that North Korea has executed a former treasure official, not for bribery, but because of the failure of his currency reforms.

Pak was accused of ruining the nation's economy in a blunder that also damaged public opinion and had a negative impact on leader Kim Jong Il's plan to hand power over to his youngest son, Yonhap said.


In his germinal article, Two Laws of Penal Evolution (1902) [for a translation published in 1973, not free unfortunately), Emile Durkheim predicted that the general trend toward leniency in punishment, by which he meant the shift away from capital punishment in particular, and toward less intense punishment of all kinds, had exceptions. Two were when states embraced either theocracy or revanchist forms of absolutism. For the general principle of leniency reflects the rise of the individual as the moral center of penal retribution and away from a demand to punish as away of responding for an affronted God or Sovereign. The US may seem an outlier for executing murderers, but we do so in manner that Durkheim would think quite consistent with our liberal values (mainly an effort to honor the victim and protect others, although a misguided one in my view). In Iran offending God (or his political party) and in North Korea, to interfere with the passing of royal succession remain capital crimes.

One detail of the Iranian case is particularly interesting for Durkheimians. Apparently Sunday is being chosen because it marks the beginning of a Halloween like traditional festival that the Islamic regime considers "unIslamic."

The tradition, the Feast of Fire, goes back thousands of years to Zoroastrian times and has been banned in Iran in recent decades because of its non-Islamic roots. The opposition had called for its celebration this year as a sign of protest.

My bet is neither of these Dinosaur like regimes will be around in twenty years (or perhaps even ten) so students get busy studying them (a bit hard, I admit).

For those following my Legal Studies 160: Punishment, Culture and Society course, who are really bored over Spring break, my question to you is how would Marxist or Foucauldian analysts see the use of capital punishment in recent weeks by these two regimes?

Posted by Jonathan Simon on March 18, 2010 at 12:58 PM in Criminal Law, Jonathan Simon | Permalink

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"The US may seem an outlier for executing murderers, but we do so in manner that Durkheim would think quite consistent with our liberal values (mainly an effort to honor the victim and protect others, although a misguided one in my view). In Iran offending God (or his political party) and in North Korea, to interfere with the passing of royal succession remain capital crimes."

The U.S. has executed 3 murderers since 1977. Most murderers are executed by states, and the frequency with which they use the death penalty varies enomously. Many states have either not executed people or have done so very sparingly.

Those states that have done so are far more conservative than those in the rest of the nation, and have a political elite that publicly links conservative political objectives with conservative religious views. The case that executions are common in Florida and Texas for much the same reason that they are common in say, Saudi Arabia, has plausible evidentiary basis.

Posted by: ohwilleke | Mar 19, 2010 2:06:14 PM

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