Saturday, November 20, 2010

Iran 'proud' of stone-age justice system

A demonstrator holds an image of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani's portrait during a support rally in front of the Iranian Embassy in Rome on Sept. 2, 2010

I've got a good idea ~ let's introduce stoning!! Next wonder why the world puzzles over my decision ~ then I shall defend it down to the last irrational detail:

And on a trip to New York this week, Javad Larijani, chief of Iran's Human Rights Council, defended the practice. According to Iran's state-run Raja News he said the punishment by stoning was "only a small part of our extensive punishment laws...We are proud of having such a system."

"More than 50% ... may not die," if stoning is employed, he said, adding, "Stoning means you should do a number of acts, by throwing the stone in a limited number, in a special way.... In the eyes of some people, stoning is a lesser punishment than execution because there is a chance you could survive."

Iran's extensive range of punishment also includes throwing those found guilty off sides of cliffs! Was Muhammad a Spartan incarnate?

For four years, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has been on Iran's death row awaiting at any moment her execution by stoning. Her case was back in the international spotlight this week with the barbaric practice continuing to cause controversy and embarrassment inside--as well as outside--Iran, reports Michael Higgins and Adam McDowell.

When Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani was found guilty of adultery and complicity of murder by an Iranian court-- in a language she didn't understand -- the 43-year-old mother of two fainted when a fellow prisoner told her the sentence meant she was to be stoned to death.

Stoning for adultery has been part of Iran's Islamic Penal Code since 1983, but even within the country it has been hugely controversial. The ruling ayatollahs and political class have debated for years about a possible end to a practice that has become an embarrassment to the regime.

But despite official government moratoriums on stoning, it is still carried out and judges continue to hand down the sentence for adultery.

Ms. Mohammadi Ashtiani's case has become a cause celebre in part because her son and daughter -- at risk to themselves -- have publicly proclaimed not only her innocence, but the inhumanity of the sentence.

Despite the worldwide condemnation, Iran is refusing to bow to international pressure and there have been contradictory claims from Iranian officials about the sentence. In a possible sign of the conflict dividing pro-and anti-stoning camps, one official said her sentence had been suspended only for that to be denied the next day.

And on a trip to New York this week, Javad Larijani, chief of Iran's Human Rights Council, defended the practice. According to Iran's state-run Raja News he said the punishment by stoning was "only a small part of our extensive punishment laws...We are proud of having such a system."

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal he said a moratorium had suspended the practice, but a sentence of stoning still acted as a deterrent.

"More than 50% ... may not die," if stoning is employed, he said, adding, "Stoning means you should do a number of acts, by throwing the stone in a limited number, in a special way.... In the eyes of some people, stoning is a lesser punishment than execution because there is a chance you could survive."

Ms. Mohammadi Ashtiani's high-profile case is one of only many stonings in Iran since the practice was reintroduced following the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

Since 1980, at least 150 men and women have been stoned to death in Iran, said Farshad Hoseini, head of the International Committee against Execution, who has compiled a report on the practice from media reports and human rights organizations.

However, he cautions in the report, "It should be pointed out that obtaining a true and complete list of the victims is extremely difficult, if not totally impossible, due to the regime's systematic censorship of such news."

He added, "Stoning in Iran is a political tool in the hands of an Islamic regime to oppress the society as a whole in one of the most savage ways. The overwhelming majority of the victims of stoning are women. Stoning in Iran is therefore a tool, among many such religious, oppressive tools, for keeping women in their place."

Ms. Mohammadi Ashtiani, from northwest Iran and a member of the Azerbaijani minority, was convicted in 2006 of complicity in the murder of her husband.

She was jailed for 10 years for that crime. She was also initially convicted of "having illicit relations" with two men and flogged 99 times, says Amnesty International. But she was later found guilty of "adultery while married," leading to the stoning sentence.

Ms. Mohammadi Ashtiani, whose first language is Azerbaijani, speaks only limited Farsi, the language of the prosecutors and the courts. She did not understand that rajm, a word borrowed from Arabic, meant stoning, and fainted when told what it was.

Since worldwide attention has been focussed on the case this year, the Iranian authorities have become defensive and contradictory.

According to Amnesty, one official said she could still face trial for murder -- despite being already convicted -- and if found guilty could be hanged. This sentence would take precedence over any punishment for adultery such as stoning.

The woman was paraded before television reporters to "confess" to her crime and to deny reports she had been flogged a "second" time.

But her lawyer, Houtan Kian, told Britain's Guardian newspaper, "She was severely beaten up and tortured until she accepted to appear in front of camera."

The case has even been raised by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, who this week used it as an example to attack the West.

On Thursday, he said it was still under investigation and denounced the U.S. outcry over her sentence.

Asked about international appeals for her sentence to be commuted, Mr. Ahmadinejad said, "I want to make my own appeal. In the United States there are 53 women condemned to death. Why is the whole world not asking them to pardon these women? We handed to them a list of these women but the media is in their hands and this is why they are not covering this question."

The Iranian President's comments could be seen as an attempt to deflect attention from a death penalty method that is unpopular domestically.

"There are cases where people have attacked the executors and released the victim, the person who was to be executed by stoning," said Ahmad Fatemi, a board member of the International Committee Against Stoning and an Iranian political exile now living in Sweden.

Since the start of a four-year moratorium on stonings from 2002-06 -- which observers believe was not actually honoured -- the Iranian regime has conducted stonings in secret whereas they were formerly public events. Human rights observers describe clandestine gatherings, where the stone-throwers are recruits from the Basij, a corps of loosely organized semi-vigilante shock troops loyal to the regime.

On their way to inflicting an ancient punishment, stone throwers nowadays reportedly have their cellphones and any recording equipment confiscated to prevent the outside world from witnessing the practice.

"The purpose of stonings is to create fear," Mr. Fatemi said. Conducting them in secret, he reasoned, makes the executions not worth the embarrassment they cause the regime. As a consequence, many believe the anti-stoning faction of Iran's elite will soon win the debate.

In 2007, Grand Ayatollah Yousef Sanei, a renegade reformist mullah and former Grand Council member now retired from office, publicly issued a fatwa calling for an end to stoning.

"There are cracks inside the regime. Critics within their own ranks write against [stoning], they think this is stupid. They [note the West] uses it as a propaganda tool against Islam and so on," said Mr. Fatemi. He concluded that politically, "it is not possible to execute Sakineh [Mohammadi Ashtiani] in the foreseeable future."

Ann Harrison, Amnesty International's London-based Iran researcher, agreed that fear of embarrassment seems to be turning Iran away from stonings.

"Our understanding is the authorities are trying to find ways to end stoning and one of the proposals has been that stoning sentences be changed to executions by hanging," she said.

But Ms. Mohammadi Ashtiani is likely to die, whether or not authorities are willing to stone her.

"I do think it's unlikely she'll end up being stoned to death, although she is still under a sentence of stoning at the moment and there's not much preventing it," Ms. Harrison said.

On the other hand, "there is a very serious risk that she might be executed by hanging. It may be that the authorities are trying to portray her as a murderer so that if she is hanged, people in Iran think she's being hanged for murder--but in fact she's being hanged for adultery."


From conviction to execution, the practice of stoning is carefully regulated and codified under a set of articles listed in the Islamic Penal Code, which has been translated into English by Amnesty International and Iranian human rights activist Soheila Vahdati.


Death sentences for adultery seem, at first, to be difficult to secure under Iranian law. The accused must confess four times, or the act must have been witnessed in the flesh by at least "four just men" or "three just men and two just women." Witnesses are officially encouraged to be sure of their story; they can be flogged for testimony deemed false. In reality, prosecutions for adultery succeed in Iran through a legal loophole. Under "judge's knowledge" or "judge's finding," if a judge believes adultery took place, he can add the force of his opinion to the documentary evidence and find the defendant guilty. According to the International Committee Against Execution, between one and 12 people are executed by stoning in Iran each year for adultery, and a further 23 have been condemned to die this way.


Since the age of majority under Iranian law is nine lunar years for girls and 15 for boys, it is theoretically possible children would be condemned to death by stoning. Human rights activists believe the youngest people to receive the sentence were 15 or 16, and had turned 18 by the time any sentence was carried out, although they acknowledge that reliable, comprehensive information about the Iranian justice system is hard to come by. Article 4 of the code says that if the person sentenced to death pleads for mercy after the final confirmation of the sentence, but prior to execution, then the execution of the punishment will be delayed by order of the court issuing the sentence until the result is announced by the Commission of Amnesty and Clemency. The commission is obliged to urgently process the plea. The condemned can live in realistic hope, as senior Iranian judges do sometimes commute stoning sentences. Article 5 says the advent of insanity, apostasy, sickness, or menstruation of the condemned will not prevent the execution. However, Article 6 says, "During pregnancy and lochia (bleeding after childbirth), death penalty, adultery punishments, and life retribution shall not be carried out." After giving birth, "if execution of the sentence would harm the health of the child due to weaning from mother's breast milk," a woman's execution could be delayed until the baby reaches the age of two.


Observers believe that since 2006, stone-throwers have tended to be recruited from volunteer paramilitary groups, collectively the "Basij," who often serve as the front line in the violent suppression of popular uprisings. Stonings are believed to be unpopular even in Iran, and Basij members reportedly have their cellphones and other recording devices confiscated for the duration of executions so that images do not leak into the outside world. While human rights activists assume adult men comprise the bulk of stone-throwers, Basij units made up of women and youths are documented. It is not known what age or gender restrictions, if any, govern stoning crews in contemporary Iran. Video evidence shows circles of what appear to be mostly men standing a few metres away from the victim as the stoning takes place.

National Post

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