Iran delivers an ambiguous reprieve


WORLDVIEW:A 43-year-old widow will no longer face death by stoning – a vindication for campaigners, writes PATRICK SMYTH

A RESULT! Or at least so it seems. Partially, although ambiguity still remains. According to the Iranian embassy in London, 43-year-old widow Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani will no longer face execution by stoning.

Responding to a fast developing international campaign to save her from this medieval form of capital punishment, the embassy on Thursday evening issued a statement to the effect that “according to information from the relevant judicial authorities in Iran, she will not be executed by stoning punishment”.

It remains unclear if Ashtiani, accused of adultery, will still face death by other means – her family says she has not been told of the reprieve – while another 12 women and three men remain in jail awaiting death by stoning. All the women and one of the men were condemned for adultery.

“It is notable that this kind of punishment has rarely been implemented in Iran and various means and remedies must be probed and exhausted to finally come up with such a punishment,” the embassy statement insisted somewhat disingenuously.

In response to international pressure the Iranian authorities in 2002 announced a moratorium on execution by stoning, and again announced its suspension in 2008. Yet the BBC reports that at least six have died this way in the last eight years. The last reported case involved two men convicted of adultery in Mashhad in the northeast in December 2008. A third man, an Afghan national, managed to dig himself out of the hole in the ground in which the condemned are placed and so legally escaped execution.

According to Amnesty Iran has also so far executed 126 prisoners this year by hanging, five of them politicals. Along with China it remains the state most resolutely attached to capital punishment.

Every detail of the way Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani was to be put to death is prescribed by law. Because she is a woman, they would have buried her up to her breasts in the ground. A man is only buried to his waist, and so the chances he may be able to dig himself out, earning a legal reprieve, are marginally better.

And when they come to pick the stones with which the accused is pelted, the Iranian penal code, the Law of Hodoud, is most specific: the stones used (article 104) should “not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes; nor should they be so small that they could not be defined as stones”. The purpose in a legal stoning to death is clear – the prolonged infliction of pain.

Ashtiani’s offence, which she has repeatedly denied, was adultery, a “crime against God”. Under Iran’s version of Islamic law it is punishable by 100 lashes if outside wedlock, but by death by stoning for the married – a brutal prioritising of the status of marriage that might find favour, one might suggest unkindly, with some opponents of our own Civil Partnership Bill.

The mother of two, who has been held in Tabriz prison in East Azerbaijan province for five years, became the subject of an international campaign by politicians, some governments and human rights groups including Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, after a desperate appeal for help two weeks ago by her children and a warning from her lawyer that she could now face imminent execution.

In May 2006 a court found Ashtiani, a member of the Azerbijani minority who did not understand the proceedings and was denied access to a lawyer, guilty of having an “illicit relationship” with two men following the death of her husband, and sentenced her to 99 lashes. They were duly inflicted in the presence of her then 17-year-old son Sajad. “They lashed her just in front my eyes,” he told a journalist recently. “This has been carved in my mind since then.”

In September, however, another court which was trying one of the alleged adulterers for the murder of her husband, reopened the adultery case and suggested she had colluded in the murder. She was acquitted of murder, but the judges decided that she had earlier committed “adultery while being married” and sentenced her to death by stoning.

Adultery must be proved either by a repeated confession by the defendant or by the testimony of witnesses – four men, or three men and two women. During the trial, Ashtiani retracted a confession she had made during pretrial interrogation, alleging it had been coerced under duress.

But in the absence of the required evidence, the penal code also gives judges in such cases an extraordinary degree of discretion with the right to rule on the basis of their “judge’s knowledge”. A majority of three in the five-judge court did so. The supreme court confirmed Ashtiani’s death sentence on May 27th, 2007, and she has now exhausted the legal appeals process. Repeated requests to the judiciary for clemency had so far been rejected.

The reprieve, if it is that, is a welcome rare sign of at least some sensitivity to international opinion on the part of the Ahmadinejad regime, and a rare vindication of the campaigning work against the death penalty of groups like Amnesty.

Ashtiani’s story is but the tip of a very large iceberg.