The ordeal of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani
Briefing: How an Iranian widow came to face death by hanging in Tabriz jail
Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, faced execution today, according to Iranian activist Mina Ahadi, the woman who helped bring the case to the attention of the world.
Iranian authorities have struggled to handle the international outcry over Ashtiani's stoning sentence – particularly when it has come from relatively friendly countries such as Brazil and Turkey – and there are reports that Tehran has commuted her sentence from stoning for adultery to hanging for her "complicity" in her husband's murder.
What is Ashtiani supposed to have done?Her ordeal began in 2005 when her husband was murdered. She was arrested and imprisoned in Tabriz, where she has languished ever since. In 2006, despite being a widow following the death of her husband, she was found guilty of an "illicit relationship outside marriage" with two men. She was sentenced to 99 lashes - a punishment witnessed by her son, Sajad Ghaderzadeh, who was then 17 years old.
Later that year, while one of the two men was being tried for the murder of Ashtiani's husband, her case was reopened. Although she was acquitted of involvement in the murder, she was convicted of adultery while still being married - a more serious crime than the "illicit relationship" - and sentenced to death by stoning.
She confessed to the crime, but later retracted the admission, saying it was made under duress and she was confused because her native tongue is Azeri and not Farsi, Iran's official language.
In any case, Ashtiani's son forgave the man accused of killing his father, who is now imprisoned and not facing death.
Was it a fair trial?The reopening of Ashtiani's case to try her for adultery for a second time was illegal under Iranian law. Ashtiani was sentenced to death despite inconclusive evidence on the basis of ‘judges' knowledge', an Iranian custom that allows a trial judge to follow a hunch.
Ashtiani's lawyer, Mohammed Mostafaei, has said: "This is an absolutely illegal sentence. Two of five judges who investigated
Sakineh's case in Tabriz prison concluded that there's no forensic evidence of adultery.
"According to the law, the death sentence and especially stoning needs explicit evidence and witnesses while in her case, surprisingly, the judge's knowledge was considered as enough."
What was the public reaction?In Iran, it is difficult to say: the press is banned from reporting on Ashtiani. Two German journalists and Ashtiani's son and lawyer were arrested last month when they attempted to hold an interview. However, the fact Iran forced Ashtiani to appear on television in August to confess to adultery and complicity to murder suggests there is some domestic pressure. Ashtiani's lawyer dismissed the confession, saying she had been tortured for two days prior to her appearance.
Internationally, the press has reported on the case in depth. Demonstrations have been held in cities around the world. The US, Britain and EU have all appealed for clemency with French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner saying Ashtiani was a "personal cause" for him. Brazil, a country sympathetic to Iran, has offered Ashtiani asylum, although Tehran refused to comply.
What is Tehran's official line?The official line is that Ashtiani's adultery conviction (for which she faces stoning) is under review, while a charge against her of complicity in her husband's death (for which she faces hanging) is still pending. Her stoning sentence, although reported by the international media as being officially suspended in September, remains in place.
What is Tehran's unofficial line?It appears that Iran is severely embarrassed by the international attention which Ashtiani's case has attracted since her son and daughter began their campaign in July this year. The course of action the authorities appear to have settled on is to transfer Ashtiani's conviction from adultery to murder, so that she can be hanged – a marginally more civilised death sentence and one carried out frequently in Iran.
Foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast appeared to confirm this when he said: "The sentencing of Ashtiani for adultery has been stopped and [her case] is being reviewed again, and her sentencing for complicity in murder is in process."
Ashtiani has already been acquitted of involvement in murder, but Iran says it has lost the court papers relating to her case. Ashtiani's son says that Iranian officials stole court documents relating to his father's murder as part of a plot to frame his mother for the crime.
Is death by stoning common in Iran?Amnesty says that at least eight people were stoned to death in 1986 and that 10 people may have been stoned in 1995. In 2002, Iran's justice ministry placed a moratorium on death by stoning, although such sentences have continued to be handed down, as in Ashtiani's case. Amnesty says since 2006 at least six people have been executed by stoning.
In July, when Iran appeared to commute Ashtiani's sentence from stoning to hanging, the country's embassy in London said: "This kind of punishment has rarely been implemented".
So, is Ashtiani about to be executed?Mina Ahadi, the head of the International Committee Against Stoning, yesterday said Ashtiani could be executed as early as today. Her organisation is using the only tactic that appears to have worked so far in Ashtiani's favour – fanning international outrage.
Ahadi said a letter from Tehran had been delivered to Ashtiani's Tabriz prison four days ago giving the go-ahead for the execution. She called on "international bodies and the people of the world to come out in full force against the state-sponsored murder of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani".
Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt has asked the Iranian embassy in London whether reports of her impending fate were true. But the diplomat he spoke with was unable to confirm or deny it.
Burt said: "I took the opportunity to remind him the UK Government would regard the execution of Ms Ashtiani as utterly unacceptable." ·
Comments are now closed on this article