Even as I set down these words, there has been no acknowledged release from the Iranian authorities as to when, whether, or how the sentence of Sakineh Ashtiani will be or has been administered. I suspect that by the time this goes to print, the world will be aware of that outcome. Notwithstanding, the reader will surely find insight and interest in these notes.
Iran, a modern society in the 21st century world, a society claiming rights to nuclear power and nuclear weaponry, is now divided as to the issue of death by stoning of those convicted of wrongdoing. Let us review the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, now 43 years old, who since 2007 has been under a sentence of death by stoning pursuant to Islamic Sharia law. This mother of two was arrested in 2005 and subsequently convicted of an adulterous relationship. Some reports indicate an affair with one man, some with two. On this conviction she received ninety-nine lashes with a meter-long leather strap. Her son, in his late teens, was a witness to the lashing. In lashing, the executioner applies force based on well-established standards consistent with the nature of the crime. He abstains from lashing the head, face, or private parts.
The western world and various humanitarian groups developed an awareness of Ms. Ashtiani. It may have been their good intentions which provoked further problems for the convicted woman; she was sentenced to an additional ninety-nine lashes, by a residential prison judge at her point of captivity, for being photographed without a headscarf.
The photo of “a woman without a headscarf” appeared in The Times of London, which identified the woman in the accompanying article as Ashtiani. We suspect that sadly, the photograph and the article may have appeared as a result of the interest in the case by the humanitarian groups noted earlier in this article. A few days later, The Times said the woman had been wrongly identified! Ms. Ashtiani’s son, Sajjad, concurrently came forward to say, “[the photo] is certainly not that of my mother!” Sajjad said that he had learned of this new accusation and sentencing from inmates whom he met upon their release. He learned from them that she had been sentenced, as a result of the photograph, for “spreading corruption and indecency.” The new publicity was a double-edged sword; her case was reopened, the charge of adultery was reinstated, and she was forthwith sentenced to death by stoning.
Diplomatic incidents between the Iranian government and other nations only grew stronger; humanitarian groups continued implorations of mercy. As a result the death by stoning was suspended; placed on indefinite hold. But from the time of the initial sentencing, Iranian conservatives have been displeased by any criticism or mention of the matter, locally or globally. A Ramin Mehmanparast of the Iranian Foreign Ministry was vocal about western defense of a woman tried for “adultery, treason, and murder.” He said that they “impudently want to free her”; that they are “…making this a human rights issue.” Iranian reporters are banned from reporting on the matter. Mohammed Mostafaei, one of Ashtiani’s attorneys went into hiding; his wife and his brother-in-law were arrested; they would not be released until the attorney turned himself in. This may have been a bluff of sorts, since Mostafaei is now reunited with his family.
Stoning, not prescribed by the Koran, but rooted in Islamic legal traditions, is considered death by torture because it is slower than other forms of execution. A group throws stones at the condemned until the person dies. Since there are several throwing stones, the specific member that kills the unfortunate victim is not known. Occasionally these stonings attract considerable public attention. As an example, during October of 2008, in Somalia, on the eastern edge of the African continent, a girl was stoned to death before a transfixed crowd at a football stadium.
The case against Ashtiani took an unpleasant turn of development owing to her unsought after high profile. She admitted in a televised interview to a relationship with a man who later went on to murder her husband. Such an admission in Iran is cause for a charge of murder on the woman herself, and further, predicated consideration by authorities within the prison that stoning may give way to death by hanging.
At this writing, disagreement runs rampant. On November 3, 2010, some reports said the woman had already been executed in Iran’s northwestern Tabriz City. But the official IRNA news agency wrote; “An Iranian judiciary official denied on Wednesday the execution of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani.” And French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said a few days ago (early November, 2010) that the woman has “not yet been executed.” Koucher says no verdict has been reached, although other sources claimed at that time that the execution of Sakineh Ashtiani would likely go forward within days.
The Iranian Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, and others who embrace established Islamic traditions, are thought to favor brutal executions for such crimes as adultery; but the election in 2005 of ultra-conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad widened the rift between conservatives and reformists within the Iranian political establishment. Ahmadinejad, during September of 2010, responded to questioning by Christiane Amanpour on ABC’s This Week with an assertion that the news was made up! To quote Ahmadinejad exactly, “Ms. Mohammadi (Ashtiani) was never sentenced to stoning. This was news that was produced and incorrect. This was news that was made up!” He did however soften the viewpoint, saying that the issue of Sakineh Ashtiani was still in consideration; still being processed. He also said that stoning is “an ancient method that needs to change.”