Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two was sentenced to death by two different courts in the city of Tabriz in Iran’s northwestern province of Western Azerbaijan, in separate trials in 2006. In 2007, her sentence, to be hanged for her alleged and unproven involvement in the murder of her husband, was commuted to a 10-year jail term by an appeals court. The same year, the second death sentence, this time by stoning on charges of adultery with the man convicted of her husband’s murder, was upheld by another appeals court. (Iran had banned death by stoning in 2005, but the ban has yet to become law.) Although Sakineh retracted her confession of “illicit relations” on the grounds that it was extracted under torture, she was convicted of adultery in 2006. She endured 99 lashes in the presence of her teenage son. The names of the two men allegedly involved with Sakineh have never been documented, according to media reports.
This year, Iran suspended Sakineh’s sentence to be stoned for adultery under international pressure. However, the first case was reopened and she now faces possible execution by hanging, for murder. Critics say that, to make her execution more palatable to people, the Islamic Republic has merely changed the basis on which Sakineh is to be executed, from stoning to death for adultery to hanging for murder. Her original lawyer was forced to flee Iran after he helped her children bring international attention to her plight, which sparked a global outcry and calls for her release.
On Friday, Iran’s English-language “Press TV” aired alleged footage of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, re-enacting what it said was the murder of her husband. The black-and-white reconstruction, filmed in hand-held-camera style, is complete with background music and interspersed with graphic photographs of the murder victim. In the film Sakineh speaks fluent Farsi. In real-life, Sakineh speaks only Azeri, which closely related to Turkish.
The report accuses Germany-based Iranian activist Mina Ahadi of seeking to undermine the Islamic republic of Iran by politicising the case in the Western media and of being involved with anti-revolutionary groups. It also shows pictures of the two German journalists jailed since October after reportedly conducting an interview with the victim’s son. Her son and her second lawyer are also in jail for allegedly colluding with anti-state elements.
The Western media accused the Iranian authorities of flagrant disregard of law; the Iranians insist that they are upholding the Shariah by punishing a murderer. Iranian deputy foreign minister Hassan Ghashghavi says: “We live in an Islamic country and we act according to the Quran’s sentences. Even if 100,000 must be executed, we will carry out the Quran’s sentences.”
Stoning to death has been documented among the ancient Greeks as punishment for prostitutes, adulterers or murderers. It is also documented in the Jewish Tradition and prescribed in the Old Testament for crimes such as murder, blasphemy or apostasy. Although there is no mention of stoning in the Quran, the practice, resting on certain Hadeeths, has come to be associated with Islamic Shariah.
Sakineh’s case is remarkable for once again bringing into question not only the barbarity of the punishment but also its Islamic legitimacy. Even Iranian religious scholars such as Ayatollah Nasser Shirazi, Ayatollah Yousef Saneii and Ayatollah Bojnourdi, have denounced the practice as “un-Islamic”; others like Ayatollah Hussein Tabrizi argue that stoning should be stopped in response to the demands of the modern age. (I am sure that if it were politically profitable, the ardent supporters of in the Jammat-e-Islami would also raise their voices in Sakineh’s support, to help another Muslim “daughter” under victimisation.)
Furthermore, Sakineh’s case highlights the preoccupation of the religious jurist with the personal morality of individuals, that of women in particular. It is a mindset that has less to do with religion and more with misogyny, a psychopathic hatred of the female. It is a mindset found in all human societies and cultures, even the more civilised ones. For example, the Edith Thompson case in the early 20th century.
Thompson was hanged in Holloway Prison in 1923 after being convicted for participating in the murder of her husband by her lover. The trial remained controversial as the autopsy on her husband did not reveal any incriminating evidence.
Edith Thompson’s letters to her lover were used as evidence in the trial. However, only those letters were admitted by the British court which did not contain “taboo words” that the court found unfit for public discussion. The jurors were only provided with carefully selected extracts which prevented them from assessing the evidence within the full context of her extended writings. The Home Files were later marked not to be opened for one hundred years, successfully throttling further examination of the case. Many of her supporters argued that she had been hanged not for murder but for adultery. Her executioner later committed suicide, haunted, said his friends, by his part in the sordid drama.
Edith Thomson’s epitaph reads: “Sleep on, Beloved. Her death was a legal formality.”
Let us hope that in Sakineh’s case the legal formality will eventually be replaced with human compassion.