To share or not to share. That's the question being asked following the emergence of a video of a public hanging in Iran.
Those who have shared the disturbing video on social media argue that it sheds light on the cruel methods the Islamic establishment employs to mete out justice. Opponents, however, believe that sharing the video helps promote a culture of violence in Iran fueled by acts such as public executions.
The video, which was reportedly shot in late February in the city of Karaj, shows dozens of Iranians assembled to watch the hanging. Reports say the man who was hanged had been sentenced to death over the gang rape of a pregnant woman who lost her unborn child as a result.
With the help of the digital age, however, what started as a small audience of eyewitness has expanded to tens of thousands of viewers.
'My Child, My Child'
The video shows a man standing on a platform with his hands tied behind his back. He is surrounded by his hangmen. It's dark. A light is shining above the makeshift gallows. It almost looks like the stage of a dance show or a theater.
The man calls out for his mother. "Bring my mother, I want to see her," he shouts. "Will you let me see my mother?"
The executioners ignore his demand. A woman cries out: "My child, my child."
The man struggles with his executioners, kicking the bench where he is supposed to stand. He kicks a guard who attempts to help bring him under control. "Don't beat him, kill him," says one of the spectators.
Several other guards rush to the stage. More struggle ensues. The man is finally forced to stand on the bench, as a noose is placed around his neck. He is quickly hanged to chants of "Allah-hu Akbar" (God is great) by the crowd. His body is left suspended in the air.
'Can It Keep People From Going?'
The chilling video appeared on YouTube and social-networking sites last week. A man identified as Mohammad Reza Abbasian told the Balatarin website that a friend in Iran had sent him the footage. He said his friend received it on his phone via Bluetooth.
Abbasian says he decided to post the video on his Facebook page to deter Iranians from attending public hangings, which the authorities say help deter crime. "I wanted to show people that an individual who has been sentenced to death is being beaten up [before being hanged]. Look at the conditions in which he left this world," he says. "The painful nature of it pushed me to post it for people to see. I was [hoping] it would reach human rights activists and the video would become a symbol and that it would prevent people from going to watch executions."
Some have spoken out against the practice of sharing such videos. "What is the difference between those who attend public executions and those who share the video of these executions online?" a young man in Tehran asked on Facebook.
Roya Kashefi, the head of the human rights committee of the Paris-based Association of Iranian Researchers, agrees. She says those who watch such videos unwittingly do the state's bidding by helping it sow fear among the Iranian people. "I think when we are invited to watch videos like this, it's as if we have been invited to attend the actual execution itself," she adds. "That is something that I would not choose to do."
Desensitizing, Or Raising Awareness?
Kashefi doubts that the dissemination of such footage can help the cause of those fighting against the death penalty and public hangings in Iran. She says it has a desensitizing effect. "The fact that people think it's their right to sit and watch it because they're watching it behind their computer monitor is giving them immunity," she says. "It's as if they're safe, they're one step removed, which is very dangerous, especially if we're going to talk about the future and the consequences of watching a violent scene. Taking someone's life in any shape or form is a violent act."
Prominent U.S.-based Iranian sociologist Hossein Ghazian was among those who shared the video on Facebook, warning about its graphic content. Responding to criticism, he wrote on his page that he wasn't convinced that watching an execution leads to the promotion of violence and capital punishment. "I don't think anyone would accept the death penalty by watching this video. On the contrary, I think, most likely it would make one hate executions."
Ghazian added that his intention in sharing the video was to raise awareness about the rights of the accused, who some may write off as deserving whatever they get.
Last month, the United Nations human rights office warned about a spike in executions in Iran. The UN said 500 people were known to have been executed in Iran in 2013, including 57 in public.