IRAN: Government backs off on stoning, but what's next?
Though the embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran in London issued a news release Thursday announcing that the regime would not stone to death an Iranian woman accused of adultery, it did not clarify what fate awaited her.
Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has been in a Tabriz prison since 2006. It is speculated that she may still face a similarly gruesome death penalty sentence of hanging or beheading.
Her lawyer, Mohammad Mostafai, aid in an interview that he will approach the judiciary on Monday to inquire about his client’s fate.
Though she was a widow at the time, Ashtiani has already received a public flogging of 99 lashes for an “illicit relationship” outside marriage. With murky evidence, the judge convicted her of adultery during her husband’s lifetime as well in May 2006.
Though she retracted what her defenders say was a forced confession made during interrogation, she was still found guilty of "adultery while being married." Iranian law stipulates that three out of five judges can convict based on “knowledge of the judge," without significant evidence, reported Amnesty International.
The communique issued by the Iranian Embassy apparently denies stoning as the sentence doled out to Ashtiani."It is notable that this kind of punishment has rarely been implemented in Iran," it said.
Yet others disagree. Some are skeptical about the regime’s apparent about-face. Mina Ahadi, head of the International Committee against Stoning and Execution maintains that “the main aim of the embassy’s press release is to create doubt and detract from the campaign to save Sakineh and others sentenced to death by stoning and execution.”
Her 22-year-old son, Sajad, remains optimistic.
"They gave me permission to talk to her and she was very thankful to the people of the world for supporting her," he told the Guardian. "I'm very happy that so many have joined me in protesting this injustice. It was the first time in years I heard any hope in my mother's voice."
Mostafai said the statement made by the Iranian Embassy in London is not enough to convince him his client is safe. "The judiciary has to make the announcement," he said. "In Iran, nothing is accountable. Sakineh's life is still in danger."
In Iran, a man sentenced to stoning is first buried in the ground up to his waist; a woman is buried up to her neck. Then, a group of executioners throw small stones at the victim. The size of the stone is such that it causes grave injury but not enough to kill a person with one strike, instead ensuring a slow and painful death.Maryam Ayubi passed out while being ritually bathed before her stoning in 2001 and was stoned to death while tied to a stretcher. It was her death that led activists to mark July 11 as the Annual International Day Against Stoning.
Now the campaign takes a new shape. Ashtiani’s supporters are fighting for a total ban on stoning and the death penalty as well as Ashtiani’s unconditional release.”Sex outside of marriage and the sexual relations of adults is their private affair. It is not a crime and must never be prosecuted,” Ahadi said.
-- Becky Lee Katz in Beirut
Upper photo: Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. Credit: Associated Press
Lower photo: An Iranian woman in Brussels protests the punishment of stoning. Credit: Thierry Roge / Reuters