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By Monique Mabelly, from an account of the September 9, 1977, execution by guillotine, at Marseille’s Baumettes prison, of Tunisian prisoner Hamida Djandoubi, published in Le Monde last October. Mabelly, who died in 2012, was a French magistrate. In 1981 the French parliament abolished the death penalty; Djandoubi, who was convicted of torturing and murdering his girlfriend, was the country’s last prisoner to be executed. Translated from the French by Ryann Liebenthal.

At 7:00 p.m., I went to the cinema with B., then we went back to her place for a snack and watched the Ciné-Club film until 1:00 in the morning. I went home; I puttered around then lay down. Monsieur B. called me at 3:15 a.m., as I had requested. I got myself ready. A police car came to pick me up at 4:15 a.m. As we drove, no one spoke a word.

Arrived at Baumettes. Everyone is there. The prosecutor arrives last. A procession forms. Twenty or thirty guards, all the important “personalities.” Brown blankets are laid along the hallway to cover the sound of footsteps. At three points there are tables with basins of water and terry-cloth towels.

They open the cell door. I hear someone say that the prisoner is lying down but not sleeping. We “prepare” him. It’s rather slow going, because he has a prosthetic leg, which has to be attached. We wait. No one speaks. This silence, and the visible submissiveness of the prisoner, seem to ease the aides. The cortege re-forms, and we go back the way we came. The floor coverings are a bit askew and there is less attention paid to the sounds of footsteps.

The cortege stops at one of the tables. The prisoner is seated. His hands are manacled behind his back. A guard gives him a filtered cigarette. Silently, he begins smoking. He’s young, his hair very dark and well-groomed. His face is rather handsome, with even features, but he has a pallid complexion and dark shadows under his eyes. He resembles neither a fool nor a brute. He smokes and immediately grumbles that his handcuffs are too tight. A guard approaches and attempts to loosen them. He moans again. At this moment I see that the executioner, who stands flanked by two aides, holds a thin rope between his hands. There is talk of replacing the handcuffs with the rope, but in the end they are removed altogether, and the executioner delivers a ghastly and tragic line: “There, you see, you’re free!”

He smokes his cigarette — almost gone — and is given another. His hands are now free and he smokes slowly. I see him begin to realize it’s over — that this is it for him, that the remaining moments of his life will end with this cigarette.

He requests his attorneys. Maître P. and Maître G. approach. He speaks to them as quietly as possible, because the executioner’s two aides stand very close, as though wishing to steal from him these last moments of life. He gives a sheet of paper to Maître P., who shreds it at his request, and an envelope to Maître G. The wait goes on.

The second cigarette is finished. Nearly a quarter of an hour has passed already. A guard, young and amicable, brings a bottle of rum and a glass. He asks the prisoner if he’d like a drink and pours him a half glass. The prisoner begins drinking slowly. Now it is understood that his life will end when his glass is empty. He speaks again with his attorneys. He calls over the guard who gave him the rum and asks him to pick up the pieces of paper that Maître P. tore up and threw on the ground. The guard kneels and Maître P. puts them in his pocket.

At this point emotions become entangled. This man will die, he is lucid, he knows that he can do nothing more than delay the end by a few minutes. He is like a child doing everything in his power to postpone the hour for bed. A child who knows that he will be given certain indulgences and makes the most of them. The prisoner continues to drink, slowly, in little sips. He calls for the imam, who approaches and speaks to him in Arabic.

The glass is almost empty and, last resort, he asks for another cigarette, a Gauloise or a Gitane, as he does not like the ones he has already been given. But the executioner, getting impatient, intervenes: “We have already been very charitable with him, very humane, now it’s time to end this.” The prosecutor refuses the cigarette as well, in spite of the repeated request of the condemned, who adds very opportunistically: “This will be the last.” A certain discomfort comes over the aides. About twenty minutes have passed since the prisoner was seated. Twenty minutes so long and so short!

The request for this last cigarette brings us back to the reality of the situation, of the time that has passed. We have been patient, we have stood waiting for twenty minutes, while the prisoner, seated, expressed desires, which we have hastened to satisfy. We have let him manage the contents of this time. It was his. Now we take it back from him. He is refused the cigarette and pressed to finish his drink. He takes his last swallow and gives the glass to the guard.

One of the executioner’s aides nimbly pulls a pair of scissors from the pocket of his jacket and begins cutting the collar of the prisoner’s blue shirt. The executioner signals that the neckline is too small, so the aide makes two large snips to the back of the shirt and, to simplify matters, strips away the entire upper back.

His hands are tied behind his back with the rope. The prisoner is pulled up. The guards open a door in the hallway. The guillotine appears, across from the door. I follow the guards leading him forward and enter the room where the “machine” rests. To one side is a small brown wicker basket. Everything goes very quickly. The body is practically thrown flat on its stomach. I turn away out of not “weakness” but a sort of instinctive and visceral modesty.

I hear a deafening noise. I turn back — blood, a lot of blood, very red blood. In an instant, a life has been cut. A man who was speaking less than a minute earlier is no more than a blue pajama top in a basket. One of the guards picks up a hose. The traces of the crime must be quickly wiped away. I feel a kind of nausea, which I control. In myself I feel a cold disgust.

We go into the office where the prosecutor busies himself with the completion of a transcript. D. carefully verifies each term. This is important — having a transcript of an execution. At 5:10 a.m. I am back home. As I write these lines, it is now 6:10.

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February 2014

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