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International Alliance for Advanced Judicial Studies (IAAJS)

Decapitation

 

Decapitation is the complete separation of the head (caput) from the body. Such an injury is always fatal to humans and animals, since it deprives all other organs of the involuntary functions that are needed for the body to function, while the brain is deprived of oxygenated blood and blood pressure.

Some animals (such as cockroaches) can survive decapitation, and die not because of the loss of the head directly, but rather because of starvation. A number of other animals, including chickens, snakes, and turtles, have also been known to survive for some time after being decapitated, as they have a slower metabolism, and their nervous systems can continue to function at some capacity for a limited time even after connection to the brain is lost, responding to any nearby stimulus.

The French observed a strict code of etiquette surrounding such executions. For example, a man named Legros, one of the assistants at the execution of Charlotte Corday, was imprisoned for three months and dismissed for slapping the face of the victim after the blade had fallen in order to see whether any flicker of life remained. The guillotine was used in France during the French Revolution and remained the normal judicial method in both peacetime and wartime into the 1970s, although the firing squad was used in certain cases. France abolished the death penalty in 1981.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, the conflict and ethnic massacre between local army and Kamuina Nsapu rebels has caused several deaths and atrocities like rape and mutilation. One of them is decapitation, which is a fearsome way to intimidate their victims, but it also depicts some ritualistic elements. According to an UN report from Congolese refugees, they believed the Bana Mura and Kamuina Nsapu militias have "magical powers" as a result of drinking the blood of decapitated victims, making them invincible. According to some reports, they indeed feed the blood from their victims' heads to younger members as baptism rite, then they often burn the remains into the fire or sometimes they consume the human remains, committing cannibalism. Besides the massive decapitations (like the beheading of 40 members of the State Police), a notorious case of worldwide impact happened in March 2017 to Swedish politician Zaida Catalan and American UN expert Michael Sharp, who were kidnapped and executed during a mission near the village Ngombe in the Kasai Province. The UN was reportedly horrified when video footage of the execution of the two experts surfaced in April that same year, where some grisly details led to assume ritual components of the beheading: the perpetrators proceeded to cut the hair of both victims first, and then one of them beheaded Catalan only, because it would "increase his power", which may be linked to the fact that Congolese militians are particularly brutal in their acts of violence toward women and children. In the trial that followed the investigation after the bodies were discovered, and according to a testimony of a primary school teacher from Bunkonde, near the village of Moyo Musuila where the execution took place, he witnessed a teenage militian carrying the young woman's head, but despite the efforts of the investigation, the head was never found.

In traditional China, decapitation was considered a more severe form of punishment than strangulation, although strangulation caused more prolonged suffering. This was because in Confucian tradition, bodies were gifts from their parents, and so it was therefore disrespectful to their ancestors to return their bodies to the grave dismembered. The Chinese however had other punishments, such as dismembering the body into multiple pieces (similar to English quartering). In addition, there was also a practice of cutting the body at the waist, which was a common method of execution before being abolished in the early Qing dynasty due to the lingering death it caused. In some tales, people did not die immediately after decapitation.

Pakistan's government employs death by hanging for capital punishment. Since 2007, militants from Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan have used beheadings as a form of punishment for opponents, criminals and spies in the north west region of Pakistan. Severed heads of opponents or government officials in Swat were left on popular street corners in order to terrorize local population. The beheadings have stopped in Swat since the military incursion and sweep-up that began in May 2009 and ended in June 2009. Three Sikhs were beheaded by the Taliban in Pakistan in 2010. Daniel Pearl was beheaded by his captors in the city of Karachi.

Historically, beheading was typically used for noblemen, while commoners would be hanged; eventually, hanging was adopted as the standard means of non-military executions. The last actual execution by beheading was of Simon Fraser, 11th Lord Lovat on 9 April 1747, while a number of convicts (typically traitors sentenced to drawing and quartering, a method which had already been discontinued) were beheaded posthumously up to the early 19th century. Beheading was degraded to a secondary means of execution, including for treason, with the abolition of drawing and quartering in 1870 and finally abolished by at the monarch's discretion in 1973.

In France, until the abolition of capital punishment in 1981, the main method of execution had been by beheading by means of the guillotine. Other than a small number of military cases where a firing squad was used (including that of Jean Bastien-Thiry) the guillotine was the only legal method of execution from 1791, when it was introduced by the Legislative Assembly during the last days of the kingdom French Revolution, until 1981. Before the revolution, beheading had typically been reserved to noblemen and carried out manually. In 1981, President Francois Mitterrand abolished capital punishment and issued commutations for those whose sentences had not been executed.

In Spain executions were carried out by various methods including strangulation by the garrotte. In the 16th and 17th centuries, noblemen were sometimes executed by means of beheading. Examples include Anthony van Stralen, Lord of Merksem, Lamoral, Count of Egmont and Philip de Montmorency, Count of Horn. They were tied to a chair on a scaffold. The executioner used a knife to cut the head from the body. It was considered to be a more honourable death if the executioner started with cutting the throat.

 
 

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