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The world's cruellest execution methods

A noose

A new form of capital punishment was introduced to the world in January 2024, when Alabama prisoner Kenneth Smith became the first person to be executed with nitrogen gas. His death sparked controversy, with witnesses saying that Smith struggled and suffered, and even the White House calling it a ‘very troubling’ innovation.

Of course, there are other forms of capital punishment around the world which have been regarded as unusually cruel for generations – yet are still officially in place to this day.

Public hanging

Iran carries out more executions than any other country apart from China, but it’s not just the sheer number of killings that have caused concern. There’s also been widespread condemnation of Iran’s taste for public hangings, which are not only degrading for the prisoners – who are sometimes ‘guilty’ of nothing more than being gay or protesting the state – but also inflict immense pain and suffering.

That’s because they can involve the prisoners being hoisted up gradually by a construction crane. Unlike ‘long drop’ hangings, where the condemned person’s neck is instantly broken, this kind of hanging slowly suffocates the prisoner and it can take more than 20 minutes to die.

A particularly egregious example of the punishment being used was the 2022 execution of Majidreza Rahnavard, a young man hanged by a crane in front of a crowd. Though he was convicted of killing two members of the Basij – Iran’s much-feared, state-sanctioned paramilitary force – many believe he was tortured into confessing.

Such is the alarm over these kinds of executions that campaigners have petitioned crane manufacturers to renounce business ties with Iran over ‘misuse’ of their products.

The gas chamber

Strapping a prisoner inside a sealed chamber and poisoning them with hydrogen cyanide gas remains an ‘alternative’ method of execution in several US states, but due to concerns about its cruelty, it hasn’t been used since the death of Walter LaGrand in 1999.

LaGrand and his brother were condemned to death for killing a bank manager during an armed robbery in Arizona. Given the choice of lethal injection or gas chamber, they both chose the gas chamber, because even then it was considered an unusually nasty method and the brothers figured it might buy them more time, or even lead to the sentence being commuted.

It didn’t quite work out that way – LaGrand’s sibling was eventually killed by lethal injection, while LaGrand endured the more protracted gas chamber experience, coughing and gagging as he was enveloped by deadly fumes.

Several years earlier, the Arizona execution of spree killer Donald Harding had taken 11 minutes to complete, with his attorney later saying, ‘I will never forget the look on his face when he turned to me soon after inhaling the fumes. It is an image of atrocity that will haunt me for the rest of my life.’


Beheading was an official method of execution in the West until relatively recently – the last use of the guillotine in France occurred in 1977. Today, the only country associated with state-sanctioned beheadings is Saudi Arabia, where the punishment has been carried out using a sword – in public – countless times.

In fact, Deera Square in the capital city of Riyadh has witnessed so many beheadings that it’s informally dubbed ‘Chop Chop Square’. Speaking in an interview in 2003, one prominent executioner boasted of decapitating up to 10 people on a given day, saying ‘people are amazed how fast [his sword] can separate the head from the body’.

Although public beheadings have not been reported in recent years, the overall number of executions has climbed, with 81 people executed on a single day in March 2022.


The practice of pelting an unfortunate prisoner with stones until they are dead is perhaps the most excruciating form of capital punishment still known to be officially permissible in countries such as Sudan and Iran.

Stoning is synonymous with a certain interpretation of Islamic law regarding adultery and has fortunately become a rare occurrence, at least on a state-sanctioned level, compared to even a few decades ago.

Iran, which caused huge concern among human rights campaigners for carrying out around 150 official stonings between 1980 and 2009, seems to have largely phased out the practice. However, in November 2023 it was reported that a woman had been sentenced to death by stoning for cheating on her husband. The outcome of the case is unclear, though she was able to appeal the punishment whose description in the Iranian penal code is chilling:

‘The size of the stone used in stoning shall not be too large to kill the convict by one or two throws and at the same time shall not be too small to be called a stone.’

Anti-aircraft guns

Has North Korea really taken the concept of the firing squad to an outrageous extreme, through the use of anti-aircraft guns? As with so much about the isolated state, details are hazy. But in 2017 it was reported that a group of North Korean officials were killed by anti-aircraft guns for ‘making false reports’ to leader Kim Jong Un. A few years before that, the North Korean defence minister was allegedly executed the same way, apparently for falling asleep during a meeting.

The details of this method were laid out in 2017 by a defector, who described how 10,000 people were forced to look on as a group of condemned prisoners were ‘lashed to the end of anti-aircraft guns’. Their bodies were utterly obliterated when the weapons were fired, spraying chunks of flesh everywhere.