Iranian Woman Will Not Be Stoned, May Still Be Killed

An undated photo from Amnesty International of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who faces execution in Iran. Amnesty International-AP

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman whose impending execution ignited worldwide outrage this week, will not be stoned to death, the Iranian Embassy in London told reporters on Thursday. She could, however, still face death by other means such as hanging.

In a rapid-fire campaign that galvanized forces both online and in the halls of government, Ashtiani's cause was taken up by prominent figures as varied as Sen. John Kerry, Lindsay Lohan, the Norwegian foreign affairs office, actors Colin Firth and Emma Thompson, and British foreign secretary William Hague, who called stoning a "medieval punishment" that, if carried out, would "disgust and appall the watching world."

Human rights reports say Ashtiani has been in prison since May 2006, when she was convicted of adultery. She was sentenced to a punishment of 99 lashes, which has already been carried out. Later that year she was accused of murdering her husband. Those charges were dropped, but an inquiry into the adultery charge was reopened. The judges convicted her based on "judge's knowledge," or conviction of guilt, rather than hard evidence, despite the retraction of a confession she maintains was made under duress. Ashtiani also may have suffered from a language barrier, since she speaks Turkish, not Farsi.

On June 13, her lawyer, Mohammad Mostafazi, a prominent Iranian rights activist, posted a message on his blog warning that Ashtiani could be buried up to her chest and stoned to death as soon as this weekend. Lawyers are not always notified of when their clients' executions are to be carried out, says Faraz Sanei, an Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch, so it remains unclear how Mostafazi knew Ashtiani's stoning was imminent. After the posting, Ashtiani's children, ages 17 and 22, sent a desperate letter to Iranian human-rights organizations in exile, including, most prominently, Mina Ahadi's International Committee Against Stoning, and began speaking to the press outside Iran. Once the media storm picked up this week, Sanei says, he received more than 10,000 e-mails about the case.

The attention may have had an effect. According to Britain's Channel 4 News, the Iranian Embassy sent this response to requests for information on the case:

Considering the statements made by the Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt on an Iranian national, Mrs Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, and her execution, hereby this mission denies the false news aired in this respect and notifies the Ministry that according to information from the relevant judicial authorities in Iran, she will not be executed by stoning punishment.

It is notable that this kind of punishment has rarely been implemented in Iran and various means and remedies must be probed and exhausted to finally come up with such a punishment.

It should be added that the stoning punishment has not been cited in the draft Islamic Penal Code being deliberated in the Iranian Parliament.

The Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran highly recommends that news and reports should not be taken for granted and considered a reliable source of information for official statements or misjudgements.

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The Iranian mission to the United Nations, which handles public affairs for the Iranian government in the United States, did not respond to NEWSWEEK's request for comment.

With more than 380 executions in 2009, Iran is second only to China in the number of people it condemns to death. Given the population differences between the two countries, that makes Iran the world's top executioner per capita, says Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. The country is also responsible for 75 percent of all executions of juveniles, says Ghaemi.