in traditional black Islamic cloaks (chadors), the female corpses
first surfaced in the holy Shiite city of Mashad last year. The 19
victims with arrest records for prostitution and drug use had been
strangled with their own head scarves, their bodies dumped in
public places. As the numbers grew, the Iranian press latched on
to the term "spider killings" to describe the macabre
methodology and ruthlessness of the murders.
should be a higher degree of security in a holy city," member
of parliament Fatemeh Khatami told Tehran's government-owned
'Iran' (July 22). And, in the view of many conservatives, less
to political pressure, the police, who had ignored the case for
months, arrested Said Hanai, a 39-year-old construction worker,
after three murders in a two-week period in July. "I removed
all trace of them. They had no value to me," Hanai, who
confessed to 16 of the 19 murders, told 'Iran' (July 28) in a
jailhouse interview. Despite a history of mental illness and a
professed lack of remorse, Hanai was embraced by conservatives as
a hero. He claimed that prostitutes had corrupted his
neighborhood, causing his wife to be mistaken for a streetwalker.
According to Tehran's conservative 'Resalaat' (July 30), crowds of
supporters gathered around his house on the day of his arrest,
chanting, "We will protect you!" and "The unclean
must be destroyed!"
high-profile nature of the case spotlighted social ills rarely
discussed in Iran, and the conservative press was quick to point
fingers. "Who should be judged in Mashad?" asked an
editorial in the conservative 'Jomhuri Eslami' (July 30).
"Those who want to eleminate the sickness, or those who are
at the heart of corruption?" Others took more direct jabs at
the reformist government of President Muhammad Khatami as the root
cause of the killings. "Prostitutes are victims of the
administrative and economic system," said an editorial in 'Resalaat'
(July 30). "Who will ensure that hundreds of other
streetwalkers won't replace the victims and dozens of others won't
replace Hanai?" The extreme rhetoric of the conservative
press spurred a front-page story in the reformist 'Nowruz' (July
31). "Conservative newspapers are exploiting the killings for
their own political benefit... The murders are being portrayed as
a natural reaction to growing corruption." The image of Hanai
as a paragon of morality was dispelled when, one week after his
arrest, he admitted to sexually abusing the victims (Islamic
Republic News Agency - IRNAS, Aug. 6).
Hanai is a fall guy or the true killer may never be known. Reports
of additional murders surfaced after his arrest (IRNA, Aug. 1),
but government sources dismissed them as copycat killings. For
months, reformist newspapers have implied that conservative
elements in Iran are complicit in the murders. Comparisons have
been made to the unsolved killings of prominent intellectuals and
journalists in the late '90s, which also had the tacit support of
many conservatives. "No one is advocating illegal action to
moral corruption," said one letter in Tehran's conservative 'Kayhan'
(July 30). "But speaking out against illegal action (killing)
in defense of the corrupt and filthy harms the general