– July 20, 2010
Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has been imprisoned in Tabriz Prison in northwestern Iran since 2005, having suffered 99 lashes and been condemned to die by public stoning for her alleged adultery. Until last month, those facts were known only to a small handful of people working quietly through the Iranian legal system to secure her release.
Now, with Ashtiani’s story filling the pages of newspapers and Web sites around the world, her name, and the appalling details of her case, are familiar.
Judges relied on “wisdom” rather than evidence to determine her guilt, using a loophole in the Iranian legal system. But even by Iranian legal standards, the case was fraught. Ashtiani had no lawyer until late in the appeal proceedings, despite being illiterate and unable to speak Farsi, the language used in court, according to the International Committee Against Execution (ICAE). She retracted a confession she says was made under duress. Nonetheless, court after court signed off on her death warrant, until all legal avenues had been exhausted.
Her lawyer, Mohammad Mostafai, a frequent defender of death-row inmates in Iran, and her children, Sajjad, 22, and Fasride, 17, finally decided to go public with her story via the lawyer’s blog, at great personal risk. While the media-savvy Mostafai is enough of a public figure to make his arrest unlikely, says the ICAE’s Ahmad Fatemi, Ashtiani’s children have no such protection. Sajjad was recently summoned to the intelligence office of the Tabriz prison—a move, says Fatemi, that is meant to send a clear message. “That’s the part of the prison where torture takes place,” he told NEWSWEEK. “When they do this, it is to put pressure on a person.” Sajjad, he has been told by sources inside Iran, was wise enough to ignore the summons.
Iran’s judiciary chief, Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, has the power to halt executions and make recommendations to the country’s Supreme Leader, who decides whether to pardon prisoners convicted of crimes against God or state. For crimes against individuals, like murder, the victim’s family has final say.
For the last week, Iranian officials have said the case is under review on “humanitarian grounds,” but their reasoning is as unclear as Ashtiani’s fate. They have steadfastly denied that international attention had any effect on the decision, but they’ve also taken care to impose a media blackout on the case in Iran. Still, even postblackout, the ICAE has seen two local Iranian newspapers publish quotes from Tabriz’s head of the judiciary declaring Ashtiani’s execution to be imminent. This directly contradicts what Iran’s human-rights chief, Mohammad-Javad Larijani, has said about putting the case under review. Then again, supporting his statements, the ICAE has obtained a document showing that the Supreme Court accepted a request to reopen the case. NEWSWEEK’s calls to the Iranian mission in New York for clarification went unreturned.
Still, while there is no guarantee that Ashtiani will walk free, given the global attention she’s received, she likely stands a better chance than the some 140 other prisoners sitting anonymously on death row in Tabriz alone, according to the ICAE’s count. An accurate count of the total number of prisoners on death row in Iran is impossible to come by. The Iranian government doesn’t publish execution data, and many executions in Iran are never announced, with lawyers and family members often finding out only after they have taken place.
135 executions have taken place so far this year in Iran. Those are just the cases that can currently be confirmed, though, and the numbers are always rising.
Watching the numbers climb, rights experts say Iranians are wary of a return to the dark days of 1988, when the state executed more than 3,000 Iranians, largely for political crimes. While most executions in Iran are carried out for murder and drug crimes, the sentence can also be applied for sexual and political crimes like adultery, sodomy, corruption, and the broadly defined “enmity against God.” Just as problematic are the trials themselves, which often fail to meet standards for fairness set by treaties like the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a signatory. Prisoners have reportedly faced torture, been held incommunicado, been denied counsel, and confessed under duress in cases leading to capital punishment; Iran also executes more juveniles than any other country in the world.