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Iran: 'Spider Killings' Claim 19 Prostitutes

By Charles Recknagel/ Azam Gorgin

Iranian police said yesterday they had arrested a man suspected in a majority of the murders of 19 prostitutes over the past year in the northeastern Iranian city of Mashhad. The Iranian press have dubbed the killings the "spider murders" for the way the victims have been entangled and strangled in their own headscarves -- much like an insect trapped in a web. The arrest may bring a halt to the mounting number of Mashhad's female murder victims. But it may not stop debate over why officials took so long to solve the case. RFE/RL correspondents Charles Recknagel and Azam Gorgin report.

Prague, 26 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's so-called "spider murders" have all the elements of a horror story written to terrify readers.

Since last July, 19 prostitutes in the Mashhad area have perished the same way. First the victim is trapped and suffocated in her own long headscarf, which Iranian women use to cover their hair outdoors. Next her corpse is wrapped tightly in her own chador, the traditional Iranian woman's head-to-toe outer garment. The body is then left by the road for the police to find.

The exact number of spider murders has come under some dispute. The judge presiding over the case in Mashhad told a newspaper this week that only 17 prostitutes have been killed, but he provided no explanation for his lowering the number of victims. The Iranian press continues to put the count at 19.

The latest victim was found late Sunday (22 July) in Mashhad's northern Samarghand district. The victims were all aged between 25 and 50, and had criminal records for drug use and prostitution. None had shown signs of being sexually abused before their murder.

All the victims were what are referred to locally as "truck women" -- prostitutes who stand at busy junctions and whose customers are usually truck drivers and delivery men. Such prostitutes have become common in Mashhad and other cities near Iran's border with Afghanistan that serve as stopping points for traffickers moving opium and heroin into Iran and on to the Gulf and Europe. The price for the truck women's services is reported to be about five dollars, paid either in cash or drugs.

Mashhad is also the burial site of the eighth imam of the Shi'ite sect. As such, it is the destination for millions of pilgrims from across the world each year.

The first of the murders a year ago aroused little public interest -- as might be expected in a society where prostitution is not only illegal, but labeled by Iran's Islamic Revolution as an offense against God. But as the number of dead began to mount with frightening speed, an increasingly rancorous public debate emerged concerning the police's inability to stop them.

This month, a parliamentarian from Mashhad accused security officials investigating the case of laxity and demanded some be fired. The legislator, Ali Tajerani, said, "if these murders had taken place anywhere else in the world, officials investigating them would have been sacked [by now]."

A 22-year-old laborer had been arrested in April after reportedly confessing to killing the prostitutes to clean society of "corrupt women." He was later released after his claim appeared to be a hoax.

But yesterday, police made a new arrest in the case. Iran's police chief Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf said on state television that the suspect is a 39-year-old husband and father of three, and was arrested in connection with 16 of the killings.

Qalibaf said the three other murders were believed to have been carried out by other killers, and that arrests have also been made in connection with those cases. The police chief also said that the suspects were believed to be acting independently.

Throughout the spider murders saga, rumors have been rife that the killer -- originally thought to be a single individual -- could be a group of extremists who felt a religious duty to stop what they saw as growing corruption in society.

Another parliamentary deputy from Mashhad, Ali Zafarzadeh, suggested that a well-organized group is behind the killings. Just two days ago, he told Iran's students news agency ISNA that the killers were "definitely from an intricate network with access to court documents."

Zafarzadeh also drew a parallel between the spider murders and the serial killings of four political dissidents in 1998 by what the Intelligence Ministry later described as its own "rogue" agents.

Yet another parliamentary deputy from Mashhad, Fatemeh Khatami, told RFE/RL Persian Service correspondent Alireza Taheri recently that representatives had sent letters to Iranian ministries to press for answers to the case:

"Through the letters which have been sent to the people in charge in the appropriate ministries, with the help of God, they will reply and then I can give you some complete answers."

Some officials commenting on the spider murders have said there was nothing to indicate a conspiracy. At the same time, however, they added they felt little sympathy for victims who are prostitutes.

Hossein Zare-Sefat, deputy governor-general for security and law enforcement in the Mashhad region, said earlier this month that he did not condone murder but that "extramarital relations [were something] our society cannot accept." He also said that "the number of victims, [considering] the population of Mashhad and compared to other societies, [didn't] seem like much." He said that last year, 41 people were killed in Mashhad, a city of 1.5 million.

As speculation has grown over the murders, one aspect of the case has received scant public attention -- the sad fate of the victims themselves. In keeping with the shame prostitution carries in Iran, the women's families have not come forward to claim the bodies and the names of the victims have not been published.