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Khivan rough justice

They looked like lambs in the hands of their executioners. Whilst several were led to the gallows or the block, I saw how, at a sign from the executioner, eight aged men placed themselves down on their bucks upon the earth. They were then bound hand and foot, and the executioner gouged out their eyes in turn, kneeling to do so on the breast of each poor wretch; and after every operation he wiped his knife, dripping with blood, upon the white beard of the hoary unfortunate.

Ah! Cruel spectacle! As each fearful act was completed, the victim liberated from his bonds, groping around with his hands, sought to gain his feet! Some fell against each other, head against head; others sank powerless to the earth again, uttering low groans, the memory of which will make me shudder as long as I live.

A treatment of prisoners such as I have described is indeed horrible; but it is not to be regarded as an exceptional case. In Khiva, as well as in the whole of Central Asia, wanton cruelty is unknown; the whole proceeding is regarded as perfectly natural, and usage, law and religion all accord in sanctioning it. The present khan of Khiva wanted to signalise himself as a protector of religion, and believed he should succeed by punishing with the greatest severity all offences against it. To have cast a look upon a thickly-veiled lady, sufficed for the offender to be executed by the Redjm according as religion directs. The man is hung, and the woman is buried up to the breast in the earth near the gallows, and there stoned to death. As in Khiva there are no stones, they use kesek (hard balls of earth). At the third discharge, the poor victim is completely covered with dust, and the body, dripping with blood, is horribly disfigured, and the death which ensues alone puts an end to her torture.

The Khan has affixed the punishment of death, not only for adultery, but to other offences against religion, so that in the first years of his reign, the Ulemas were even obliged to cool his religious zeal; still no day passes, but someone is led away from an audience with the Khan, hearing first the fatal words pronounced, which are his doom, 'Alib barin' (away with him).

I had almost forgotten to mention that the Yasaul led me to the treasurer to receive the sum for my daily board. My claim was soon settled; but this personage was engaged in so singular an occupation that I must not omit to particularise it. He was assorting the khilat (robes of honour) which were to be sent to the camp, to reward those who had distinguished themselves. They consisted of about four kinds of silken coats with staring colours, and large flowers worked in them in gold. I heard them styled four-headed, twelve-headed, twenty-headed, and forty-headed coats. As I could see upon them no heads at all in painting or embroidery, I demanded the reason of the appellation, and I was told that the most simple coats were the reward for having cut off four heads of enemies, and the most beautiful a recompense for forty heads, and that they were now being forwarded to the camp. Some one proceeded to tell me 'that if this was not an usage in Roam, I ought to go next morning to the principal square, where I should be a witness of this distribution.'

Accordingly, the next morning I did really see about a hundred horsemen arrive from the camp covered with dust. Each of them brought at least one prisoner with him, and amongst the number; women and children, also bound either to the tail of the horse or to the pommel of the saddle; besides all of which, he had buckled behind him a large sack containing the heads of his enemies, the evidence of his heroic exploits. On coming up he handed over the prisoners to the Khan, or some other great personage, then loosened his sack, seized it by the two lower corners, as if he were about to empty potatoes, and there rolled the bearded or beardless heads before the accountant, who kicked them together with his feet until a large heap was composed, consisting of several hundreds. Each hero had a receipt given to him for the number of heads delivered, and a few days later came the day of payment.

Arminius Vambery, Travels in Central Asia (1864)