Anti-stoning lawyer wanted

Iran calls for arrest of human rights advocate.

By BENJAMIN JOFFE-WALT / THE MEDIA LINE
July 26, 2010 17:37
An Afghan woman clad in a burqa walks in Herat, Af

burqa afghanistan 311. (photo credit: AP)

 
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Mohammad Mostafaie, a famous Iranian human rights lawyer who has taken on the case of a woman sentenced to death by stoning, in an interview two weeks ago with The Media Line said that international pressure about the case had led to an official review.

“On Wednesday I will go to court and inquire about her case,” he told The Media Line at the time. “All I can say is that the weather is not good in Iran.”

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That was the last heard from Mr. Mostafaie. For the past week or so, all his calls have been forwarded to an automated message: “The mobile phone is off,” says the woman’s voice. 

Mostafaie recently took on the case of Sakineh Mohammadie Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two in the northwestern Iranian city of Tabriz, who was accused of having extramarital relations with two men who ended up killing her husband. Ashtiani was sentenced to death by stoning in a case that has caused an unprecedented international outcry. 

A warrant has since been issued for Mr. Mostafaie’s arrest, and Iranian security agents came to his home over the weekend but he was not there. The authorities then arrested the lawyer’s wife and brother-in-law, Fereshteh and Farhad Halimi, respectively. 

There are two versions of what happened next to Mr. Mostafaie.



Some claim the lawyer has been arrested, then interrogated at Iran’s infamous Evin prison complex, and not heard from since. 

“Four days ago he received a letter from the judicial system that he needed to report to Evin,” Farshad Hoseini, an advocate with the International Committee Against Stoning, which is in regular contact with the lawyer’s family, told The Media Line. “We have no news as to what exactly happened to him there or since then. We don’t know if he has been released.”

Conflicting reports, however, say Mr. Mostafaie is in hiding.

“He’s on the run,” Hamid Tehrani, the Iran editor of Global Voices, an aggregator of citizen journalism, told The Media Line. “They didn’t arrest him, they tried to call him in for questioning and meanwhile arrested his wife and brother-in-law, accusing them of helping him to run away. They are being kept in custody until he returns.”

“There are also two versions of what he is accused of,” Tehrani said. “One version is that he launched this campaign to stop stoning, the Iranian judiciary got mad at him and wanted him arrested. But another version is that he started to collect money... to pay off the victim’s family in the case of an Iranian who was sentenced to death for a murder he committed when he was a teenager. In the end his client was hanged for the murder, and the complaint against him is that he never gave the money he collected back.”

Ashtiani’s stoning 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.

Ashtiani has denied any wrongdoing, claiming that 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.

If carried out, the death sentence would be the first known stoning to take place in the Islamic Republic in years.

Iranian media has been banned from reporting about Ashtiani’s death sentence but her two children, Fasride and Sajjad, 16 and 20 respectively, have been leading the campaign for her release.

Dozens of international rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, took up Ashtiani’s case. The potential stoning was discussed in a number of Western parliaments and condemned by US Senator John Kerry, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, the foreign ministers of Canada and Germany and the UN 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 Ashtiani’s case. 

Earlier this month Iranian judicial authorities announced that while Ashtiani’s death sentence will stand, the sentence and option for appeal would be reviewed.

Dr. Mehrdad Khonsari, Senior Research Consultant at the Centre for Arab and Iranian Studies said there is a long history of rights lawyers being arrested.

“This is not without precedent,” he told The Media Line. “They try to deter this kind of behavior by detaining the lawyers and holding them in prison for a very long time. In the past, in many high profile public cases when for example dissidents have been arrested, if their lawyers were seen to be too active or controversial in the defense of their clients, the regime have arrested the lawyers.”

Dr. Khonsari argued that Ashtiani’s case has embarrassed the Iranian government.

“This is the first case of international objection,” he said. “Given the government’s dire situation with the international community they have backed down. It’s a small climb down but it’s not a major climb down, as they have not accepted to remove the charges or remove the death sentence.”

“It shows the anger of the regime for being put in this position,” Dr. Khonsari added. “They are not happy about it and they see this lawyer and this woman’s family as responsible for the international mayhem about this case.”

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 witness(es) to the alleged crime are asked to throw the first stones, 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 over 100 people by other means this year alone.

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