The amputation sentences were carried out in Zahedan, the capital of Iran's southeastern Sistan-Baluchistan Province. The five men were found guilty of armed robbery, hostage taking, and firing at police, though officially they were convicted of "acting against God" and "corruption upon this Earth."
Amputation as a punishment is legal in Iran, but there have been no reports of it being used for several years. It is unknown if the meting out of such a punishment now is a new trend or if this was an isolated incident in only one region of the country.
With doctors watching, the convicted men's right hands and left feet were amputated. Traditionally, the right hand is amputated for a first serious offense and the left foot for a second serious offense. The right hand-left foot amputation is referred to as "cross amputation."
The Iranian Student News Agency (ISNA) reported the amputations on January 6, though it is not clear when the sentences were carried out or if the amputations were done in prison or in public.
International rights organizations have long condemned punishing people through amputations. Amnesty International, for example, calls it the "cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment of judicial amputation," and considers it a form of torture.
The deputy director of the Paris-based International Federation of Human Rights and head of the League for Defense Of Human Rights in Iran, Abdolkarim Lahidji, told RFE/RL's Radio Farda that such amputations are considered torture and an illegitimate form of punishment.
"Amputating hands, flogging, all of these kind of [sentences] that are used in Iranian Islamic laws as punishment, all of these are considered torture, [and] torture has been banned in [international treaties]," Lahidji said.
Amputation as legal punishment is still practiced in a number of countries, among them Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Islamic regions of Nigeria. They were also common in Afghanistan under the Taliban. Parts of sub-Saharan West Africa have also recently witnessed amputations as a form of intimidation used by various political factions.
Many Iranians are horrified by the punishments.
In a phone-in with Radio Farda, one listener from Tehran said, "These sentences of cutting off hands and legs are barbaric."
Another listener, Leila from Tehran, agreed with that opinion. "I'm totally against these [sentences], the actions of those who amputate hands and legs are satanic and a crime; the team of doctors who was present there are accomplices to the crime," she said.
But Javad Harati, from the city of Isfahan, said he thinks amputations serve a purpose. "I think these sentences should be carried out so that the enemies of Iran and those who are against the revolution don't even think about [working against the revolution]," Harati said.
Ahmad Ghabel, an Islamic scholar from Qom, told Radio Farda that the use of amputation is a relic of laws from a much earlier time, and not necessarily only from Islamic countries.
"The origin of these [criminal] codes goes back to the time when they were declared. They were the requirements of governing at the time of the Prophet Muhammad. At that time these punishments were accepted in the East, and the West as well as the Middle East. Therefore the use of this code [now] is doubtful," Ghabel said.
In Iran, it is more typical for courts to pass death sentences on those convicted of committing serious crimes: the same day that ISNA reported the amputations, there were reports that two men had been hanged.
A former police official found guilty of stabbing a man to death and raping his fiancee near the central city of Arak was hanged in public while a second man convicted of murdering two people was hanged in Arak prison.
The amputations also come just six months after a man was stoned to death in Qazvin Province, west of Tehran, for alleged adultery. The stoning was widely condemned by the international community and by many Islamic leaders in Iran.
Iranian media report that 16 people have been hanged so far in 2008. In 2007, more than 290 convicts were executed, many in public.
(Javad Kooroshy and Golnaz Esfandiari of RFE/RL's Radio Farda contributed to this report)