Magazine article Newsweek

And along Came a Spider: A Serial Killer Traps and Murders Prostitutes. Scarier Still, Some Iranian Conservatives Think He's a Hero

Magazine article Newsweek

And along Came a Spider: A Serial Killer Traps and Murders Prostitutes. Scarier Still, Some Iranian Conservatives Think He's a Hero

Article excerpt

The prostitutes' bodies are thrown on Iran's roadsides, or more often in open sewers. They are wrapped in their long, black chadors, the cloth knotted top and bottom to form a makeshift body bag. In every case, the killer has used a scarf to strangle his victim. Iran's newspapers call the cases "the Spider Killings," because the victims appear to be drawn like flies into the murderer's web. Their swaddled corpses resemble trapped insects awaiting their doom. It has been a year since the first bodies were discovered--in Mashhad, Iran's holiest city. To date, there have been 21.

Who is this Spider? One suspect recently confessed to 16 of the murders. But the mystery--and the horror--extend far beyond the individual killer or killers. Many hard-line supporters of the regime have publicly cheered the murder spree, which last month claimed two new victims in Tehran, as a moral cleanup campaign. "Who is to be judged?" demanded the conservative newspaper Jomhuri Islami. "Those who look to eradicate the sickness [like the killer] or those who stand at the root of the corruption [like his victims]?" Such comments, in turn, have fueled suspicions that the killer or killers are not acting alone. All the victims have arrest records--for prostitution and drug use, according to Iranian newspapers--leading some Iranians to wonder if the Spider had official help in identifying his targets. For the moderate majority of Iranians, that may be the most terrifying aspect of the crimes: they see themselves confronted not only by a serial killer but by a pervasive system of zealous cruelty and abuse.

Revolutionary Iran has a long record of vigilante attacks on students, intellectuals and politicians who embarrassed the regime. But the government of reformist President Mohammed Khatami, first elected in 1997, was supposed to end all that. Khatami promised more freedoms and an end to the regime's own lawlessness. In 1999 some intelligence officials were arrested and convicted for their role in the serial killing of liberal writers and opposition activists. …

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