TEHRAN, Iran -- An eerie silence filled the air as a crowd of around 300 gathered on Sunday just before sunrise in a Tehran park. They awaited the arrival of two young men who were about to die.
The condemned stood shoulder to shoulder, motionless, in front of two police trucks with two nooses hanging from extendable cranes, about 15 feet high. Black-clad executioners were inspecting the remote controls they would use to hang the men, both in their early 20s, who were convicted of stabbing a man in November and stealing his bag and the equivalent of $20.
From behind a makeshift barrier of scaffolding, the crowd jostled for position.
"Let's move to the other side," one spectator whispered to his wife, pointing to the spot where Iranian state television cameras had been set up. "I think we will have a better view from there."
Although every year hundreds of convicts are hanged in Iran, a public hanging in a central park in Tehran is a rare event. Most hangings take place inside prisons, according to Iranian judicial officials and international human rights organizations.
Sunday's execution in Park-e Honarmandan (Artists Park), near the crime scene, was part of a heavy-handed offensive by Iranian authorities, who say they are trying to prevent rising crime rates from getting out of hand by setting harsh examples. In recent weeks, public executions have been stepped up, and in several large cities the police have been rounding up what they call thugs and hooligans.
Police commanders and other officials blame government mismanagement of the economy -- which they say has caused a rise in unemployment and inflation -- for the increase in crime. International economic sanctions have aggravated problems, many in Iran say, leading to a record gap between rich and poor in Iran.
While no official statistics are publicly available, officials report a rise in violent crimes, mostly perpetrated by young men attacking their victims with knives to get money and other valuables.
On Sunday, the two condemned men, Alireza Mafiha, 20, and Mohammad Ali Sarvari, 23, stood before the onlookers, many of whom said they were family members and friends.
The two men, both unemployed and from poor families, had been caught two months ago on a security camera robbing a man and stabbing him, helped by two accomplices. Video from the crime spread on the Internet and caused a widespread uproar, prompting politicians and clerics to call for harsh measures.
Two weeks later, all four men were arrested. The head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Sadegh Larijani, made it clear in comments on the crime that even though their victim had not died, a death sentence for the two main defendants, Mafiha and Sarvari, was likely.
Judge Abdolghassem Salavati, notorious for his harsh treatment of those arrested during intense street protests in 2009, convicted both men of being "mohareb," a Shiite legal term that translates as "waging war against God"; the crime carries the death sentence in Iran. Judge Salavati said the two men had threatened public security and caused fear and intimidation.
On Sunday, as the sun slowly started rising in the east of Tehran, the executioners led Mafiha and Sarvari to the cranes. Sarvari, in tears, laid his head on the shoulder of one of the executioners, who placed his arm around him.