Will She Be Stoned?

Are these Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani's final days?

Somewhere in a cloistered Iranian jail cell, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the 43-year-old mother of two sentenced to death by stoning, awaits the final verdict in her case -- and the prognosis is far from hopeful. Her theocratic oppressors, enabled by the so-called Iranian justice system, have just announced that her hearing will take place this coming Saturday, August 21. Mixed messages surround the case, as the Iranian government, at one point, had taken stoning off the table in light of intense international scrutiny. However, the latest reports out of the Islamic Republic confirm that the barbaric sentence still stands. Ashtiani's fate remains perilous.

If there is an hope for Ashtiani, it is that over the past month she has become an international icon. Her picture, that of a beautiful pale-skinned Iranian woman draped in a black Islamic headscarf, symbolizes the suppressed innocence of so many of the Iranian regime’s victims. Paradoxically, she is one of the fortunate ones. An international  public  campaign, at the very least, has delayed her death.  Had the world not heard about Sakineh, she, too, would have become a silent statistic.

In response, the Iranian regime's judiciary has stepped up its intimidation. After days of beatings and torture, according to an attorney, Sakineh appeared on the government’s state television Wednesday night and admitted, in what was almost certainly a forced confession, both to adultery and to murdering her husband. With her face completely covered, she admitted to helping her husband’s cousin kill her husband. She then condemned her attorney for publicizing her case.

Apparently, the Iranian government’s modus operandi is not just to protect the fickle laws underlying their establishment; they are avenging a reputation marred by an aggressive public international campaign fueled by her son Sajaad, 22, and her attorney, 31-year-old human rights advocate, Mohammad Mostafaei. Mostafaei fled to Turkey and then to Norway after being interrogated by Iranian authorities for his involvement in the case.

The facts of the case continue to change. The regime is attempting to legitimize their harsh and unfounded ruling, moving attention from an adultery case, where the punishment obviously does not fit the crime, to one about a murder conspiracy. The case has raised eyebrows across the globe. From political leaders to celebrities, dozens of human rights organizations and social media petitions, the case has received more publicity and attention than any in the Islamic Republic’s bloody 30-year history.

The only difference between Sakineh and so many other Iranians is that we have come to know her and her predicament. That is precisely the reason why the regime wants to make an example out of her and continues to dwell on this case.  After finding itself in the international spotlight last month, the judiciary committee announced that they would reconsider Sakineh’s case. Yet as they backed down, the government felt strong-armed by what they referred to as “propaganda from the West,” and quickly regret buckling under pressure. They soon announced that they would still consider stoning.

After a tumultuous month of plot shifting, a question mark still lingers over Sakineh’s head, while the government is preoccupied in solving a multi-faceted and complex dilemma -- specifically, how to punish Sakineh without appearing cowardly or overly harsh, while simultaneously setting an example for Iranians to never again publicize legal matters in the international community.

News about high-profile cases and their verdicts are always secret so that the government will not be swayed by international opinion. Last year, 388 Iranians were executed, making it second in the world in death sentences only to China.

Sakineh’s saga began in 2005 when she was arrested near her home in Tabriz, a large city in northwestern Iran. She received 99 lashes for allegedly committing adultery with two men against her then-living husband. After the lashes, she was forced into confessing.  Speaking only Azerbaijani Turkish, the native dialect of her province, Sakineh’s situation was complicated at its onset by a language barrier. She was forced to communicate solely through interpreters.  Later, her request to retract her confession was denied. The case has since been closed and reopened, with charges alleging she helped murder her husband.  Those charges were quickly dropped, and her case then played quietly in the background of the Islamic Republic’s jarring clamor about nuclear capability threats; until recently.

A loophole in Islamic law helped the government reopen Sakineh’s case and sentence her to death by stoning. The law states that if there is inadequate evidence, judges can convict based on the “judge’s knowledge,” in other words, on a hunch.

Sharia law varies greatly depending on the country, state, region, and imam. Thus, it allows those who apply it the flexibility to interpret or exploit as they may. Concerning adultery, the law states that four "just" Muslim men must witness the crime. Since non-Muslims—in Iran that refers to Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian and Baha’i minorities—are not seen as "just," they cannot serve as witnesses. Islamic law is doubtful as to whether women are "just" or not, and accordingly, two female witnesses or testimonies equal that of one male.  Another interpretation of the law requires a rope to be passed through the bodies of two unwed individuals caught engaging in intercourse to detect penetration.

Even after receiving lashes, serving time, and being away from her children, three out of five judges assumed her guilty of adultery and sentenced her to death by the most gruesome, violent means possible. Stoning, with stones large enough to cause excruciating pain but not large enough to kill immediately, is meant to be sadistic and reserved primarily for women who commit sexual transgressions.

Had Sakineh been found guilty of murder, theft or drug trafficking, her punishment would have been less severe.  As intolerant as Islamic, or Sharia law is, it is even more so when punishing sins transgressing marriage and laws of sexuality. Yet with Iran’s polygamy laws, men possess certain immunities. Legally permitted to have up to four wives and 99 contracted wives, Iranian males have ample opportunity to digress in marriage. Wandering women, however, are punished by stoning.

The practice of stoning in Iran involves burying the individual up to his or her shoulders and then pelting stones of a specific size, intending to hurt yet not kill immediately. The point is to torture the individual for as long as possible. Similar to hanging, the Islamic Republic stones its victims in public settings with immediate family members in attendance.  The judges or witnesses in the case are often given the ‘honor’ of throwing the first stone.

Until 1983, the practice of stoning did not exist in Iran. At that time, the newly self-appointed Islamic government ratified the penal code making stringent amendments.

Following fierce international objection over the practice, a moratorium was placed on stoning in 2002, although the punishment remained a part of Iranian law.  After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad first became president, stoning in capital punishment cases became en vogue yet again.  According to Amnesty International, three people were stoned to death in 2006 to 2007, and since the beginning of 2008, nine women and two men have been stoned.

On the books, stoning can be applied equally to men and women, yet the statistics and nature of the law convince us otherwise. Stoning cases are not the only time we see this gender discrepancy in Islamic law. A nine-year-old Iranian girl can legally be married off, yet a woman, in most cases, cannot initiate a divorce against her husband.  In court, the testimony of a woman is only equal to half of that of a man; that is, if they are both Muslim. There are no laws against domestic violence, making abuse against women quite common. Similarly, in punitive damages, a Muslim woman’s life is only worth half of that of her male counterpart. In the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the horrific injustice and deep-seated iniquity of Iran’s Sharia-law state is on full display.