Iran may back down from stoning of woman

By BENJAMIN JOFFE-WALT / THE MEDIA LINE
July 11, 2010 18:29

Int'l pressure seen in move to review sentence.




An Afghan woman clad in a burqa walks in Herat, Af

burqa afghanistan 311. (photo credit: AP)

Iran has apparently submitted to intense international pressure, promising to review a judicial sentence calling for the death by stoning of a woman convicted of adultery. The sentence so far has not been commuted.

Sakineh Mohamamadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two in the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz, was accused of having extramarital relations with two men who ended up killing her husband. After two trials she was sentenced to death by stoning, which if carried out would have been the first known stoning to take place in the Islamic Republic in years.

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Dozens of international rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, took up Ashtiani’s case after it was first leaked to Radio Farda by women’s rights activist Soheila Vahdati last week. The impending stoning was discussed in a number of Western parliaments and condemned by U.S. Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.); the European Union's foreign policy chief; the foreign ministers of Canada and Germany; and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. A number of celebrities, including American actress Lindsay Lohan, playwright David Hare, philosopher A.C. Grayling and actors Emma Thompson, Juliette Binoche and Colin Firth all made statements about the case.

Iran announced over the weekend that while Ashtiani’s death sentence will stand, the sentence and option for appeal will be reviewed. Officials were quick to deny that  the decision was a response to the international outcry.

"Our judicial system cannot change its course because of Western attack and media pressure," Iran High Council for Human Rights chief Mohammad-Javad Larijani told Iran’s state news agency IRNA on Friday. "The commotion that the Western media has started in connection with this case will not affect our judges' views. The execution of Islamic religious laws on death by stoning, hijab and inheritance has always faced their audacious animosity and basically any issue which hints of religious law is always opposed by them."

Pashad Husseini, an advocate for the International Committee Against Stoning who is in touch Ashtiani’s family and lawyer, declared victory.

“This is a victory of the people of the world, and thanks to the amazing coverage from the international news media,” he told The Media Line. “Over 30 years we have had many successful cases with international campaigns to intervene in stoning sentences.”

“It’s very important to note that they have not definitely canceled the sentence, they have just said that they will review the case,” Husseini warned. “There are some examples in the past in which they said they will review the case and then in the end they carry out the stoning sentence. The children are optimistic that their mother’s imminent stoning has been cancelled, but they are still concerned about the future.”

Mohammad Mostafaie, a famous human rights lawyer in Tehran who took on Ashtiani’s case after hearing of the sentence of stoning, said there has been no official change.

“I have heard the reports that Mr. Larijani said that the stoning sentence is being reviewed, but at this time I don’t know what is the sentence in this case,” he told The Media Line. “On Wednesday I will go to court and inquire about her case. All I can say is that the weather is not good in Iran.”

Iranian media has been banned from reporting about Ashtiani's death sentence.

The case began in 2005 when Ashtiani was arrested for having "illicit relationships." She was convicted by a local court a year later and sentenced to 99 lashes and an unknown amount of time in prison, where she has remained since.

Following the original case, however, Ashtiani and her alleged boyfriends were accused of murdering her husband. Ashtiani was convicted and sentenced to death by stoning.

Iranian human rights advocates allege that Ashtiani’s adultery case was reopened during her murder trial, despite her having already been punished.

“What’s interesting about this case is that this woman had already been sentenced to lashes for adultery,” Niusha Boghrati, an Iranian journalist who covers human rights issues told The Media Line. “She appealed to a higher court. They did not decrease her sentence, but on the contrary, took it to the next level, which in the case of adultery is death by stoning.”

Ashtiani has denied any wrongdoing, claimed she was never given access to a lawyer and that her confession was made under duress. She has reportedly asked local authorities for a pardon, stating simply “If I have done any wrong, I repent." The request for clemency was denied.

Ashtiani’s two children, Fasride and Sajjad, aged 16 and 20, have been leading the campaign for her release.

Infidelity is illegal in Iran, and usually punished with lashes and prison time. However, Article 83 of the Laws of Islamic Punishment in Iran, ratified in 1991, allows for death by stoning in infidelity cases. The code later states that "the stones should not be so large that the person dies upon being hit by one or two of them; neither should they be so small they could not be defined as stones."

Stonings usually take place in public and the victim’s family is often required to watch. The judge or witnesses to the alleged crime are asked to throw the first stone, and it can take up to 30 minutes for the victim to die.

International pressure forced Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, head of Iran’s judiciary, to impose a moratorium on stoning in 2002, but rights advocates say the stoning sentences are still being carried out.

Three people were stoned to death in 2009 and another three in 2008, according to figures kept by the International Committee Against Stoning. Six people, including Ashtiani, have been sentenced to death by stoning so far this year.

Rights groups claim Iran has one of the world’s highest rates of execution. Iran has executed more than 100 people by other means this year alone.


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