Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Brazil offers asylum to an Iranian woman condemned to death by stoning

At the end of this post I will come back to a PETITION that some of you might want to sign. But first, here is the story.

=> Like many other people around the world, I have just recently become aware of the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who is a widow and the mother of two children. Ashtiani was convicted in 2006 of having "illicit" sex as a widow and was sentenced to 99 lashes. Her son, then 17, was was present and saw her being whipped. Later that year, a different set of judges decided (apparently with no hard evidence) that she had committed “adultery while being married” and increased the penalty to death by stoning. She did confess to adultery during interrogation, but at her trial she retracted the confession and said it had been extracted by coercion, which sounds plausible. Otherwise, she has consistently denied all the charges, but to no avail. Her legal appeals have been exhausted, and her execution could now be carried out at any moment. (For some further details, see the report by Human Rights Watch.)

It's worth being clear about what this form of execution involves. A woman is buried up to her breasts with her arms bound (for men, it's up to the waist), and the men attending this public execution throw stones at her head until she dies. Iranian Sharia-based law specifies that the stones cannot be too small to cause serious damage, but also not so large that death would be too quick and painless.

Ashtiani's children, with help from others both inside and outside Iran, have launched a public campaign to keep their mother from being executed. This campaign has succeeded in attracting international attention. A July 2 article in the Guardian summed up the situation a month ago:
A 43-year-old Iranian woman is facing death by stoning unless an international campaign launched by her children forces the authorities to quash what her lawyer calls a bogus conviction.

In a case that highlights the growing use of the death penalty in a country that has already executed more than 100 people this year [JW: and a total of 388 in 2009, more than any other country except China]. Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani was convicted in May 2006 of conducting an "illicit relationship outside marriage."

Sakineh already endured a sentence of 99 lashes, but her case was re-opened when a court in Tabriz suspected her of murdering her husband. She was acquitted, but the adultery charge was reviewed and a death penalty handed down on the basis of "judge's knowledge" – a loophole that allows for subjective judicial rulings where no conclusive evidence is present.

Speaking to the Guardian, her son Sajad, 22, and daughter Farideh, 17, say their mother has been unjustly accused and already punished for something she did not do.

"She's innocent, she's been there for five years for doing nothing", Sajad said. He described the imminent execution as barbaric. "Imagining her, bound inside a deep hole in the ground, stoned to death, has been a nightmare for me and my sister for all these years." [....]

Five years ago when Sakineh was flogged, Sajad was 17 and present in the punishment room. "They lashed her just in front my eyes, this has been carved in my mind since then."

Mohammed Mostafaei, an acclaimed Iranian lawyer volunteered to represent her when her sentence was announced a few months ago. He wrote a public letter about her conviction shortly after. "This is an absolutely illegal sentence," he said. "Two of five judges who investigated Sakineh's case in Tabriz prison concluded that there's no forensic evidence of adultery." [....]

Mina Ahadi, a human rights activist in Germany who helped Sakineh's children to launch their campaign internationally has been in regular contact with Sajad and Farideh. [....]

Ahadi who has been following the stoning sentence in Iran over the past few years says that she is aware of the names of 12 other women who are sentenced to death by stoning in Iran at the moment.

"These are just the women I know, I estimate that at least 40 to 50 other women are waiting for the same destiny in Iran right now," she said. [....]
=> A few days ago this international campaign was reinforced by no less a figure than President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who appealed to the Iranian government to let Ashtiani come to Brazil. What makes this intervention especially striking is that Lula's government has been building increasingly close diplomatic ties with Iran, and Lula himself, who visited Iran recently, claims to have a warm friendship with Iran's appalling President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But pressure from Brazilian public opinion seems to have forced Lula's hand--which does Brazilian society great credit.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has called on Iran’s president to send an Iranian woman facing execution by stoning to Brazil, where she would be granted asylum.

“If my friendship and affection for the president of Iran matters, and if this woman is causing problems there, we will welcome her here in Brazil,” Mr. da Silva said on Saturday in Curitiba while campaigning for his former chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff. “Nothing justifies the state taking someone’s life,” he added. “Only God can do that.”

His statement was an about-face. National and international campaigns on the Internet and via Twitter had failed to convince Mr. da Silva to intervene in the case of the woman, Sakineh Ashtiani, 43, who was convicted of adultery although she denied having had an “illicit relationship” with two men.

The Brazilian president, who has forged a close relationship with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, over the past year, said earlier last week that Iran’s laws needed to be respected.

But an adviser said Sunday that Mr. da Silva had a change of heart after reflecting more on Ms. Ashtiani’s case. “He listened to his conscience and was moved by her story,” the adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Still, the adviser said, Mr. da Silva was wading into “turbulent waters,” since this marked the first time he has risked appearing to be meddling in Iran’s domestic affairs. [....]

Ms. Ashtiani’s case has attracted international attention from many people concerned about Iran’s human rights record.

In Brazil, Mr. da Silva was subjected to almost a month of public protests with slogans like “And Now, Lula?” and a document that drew 114,000 signatures, including those of Brazilian celebrities like the musician Chico Buarque and former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Folha newspaper reported.
Whatever combination of conscience and political calculation prompted Lula's decision, his public appeal on Ashtiani's behalf is both welcome and commendable--and not something that the Iranian government can simply ignore.

(The International Committee Against Stoning, among others, did welcome the Brazilian offer, but also reiterated its call "for an end to stoning and executions altogether." They shouldn't hold their breath.)

=> So far, the Iranian government's reaction to all this public attention has been recalcitrant. There have been a few ambiguous unofficial suggestions that Ashtiani might be executed by some technique other than stoning--hanging, perhaps. In itself, this is not a very satisfactory response, but it does show some sensitivity to international public opinion.

Meanwhile, the authorities have also taken more practical steps. This weekend they issued a warrant for the arrest of Ashtiani's lawyer, Mohammad Mostafaei, and when the police couldn't find him at home, they arrested his wife and brother-in-law instead. Mostafaei, who is currently in hiding, wrote an open letter to Tehran's Chief Prosecutor denouncing this act as "hostage-taking" and calling for the release of his family members. Instead, they arrested Mostafaei's father-in-law, too.

And today the Iranian Foreign Ministry formally rejected the Brazilian offer to give asylum to Ashtiani and her children.

=> None of that looks very encouraging. However, past experience indicates that an international outcry on behalf of individuals imprisoned in Iran can be genuinely helpful. (Granted, in the past the most successful outcomes involved people who were had either foreign or joint Iranian and foreign citizenship, which is not the case for Sakineh Ashtiani. But it's certainly worth a try.)

Therefore, I urge all of you to consider adding your names to an international Petition to Save Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani.

(That website includes a list of signatures so far, beginning with that of former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and a statement by Ashtiani's children asking for "Help to save our mother." More information, along with statements by José Ramos-Horta, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Azar Nafisi, and others, is here.)

=> Iran is not the only country where Sharia-based law mandates death by stoning for adultery (Saudi Arabia is another example). But unlike the situation in some of those other countries, I think it's a safe bet that most Iranians would favor changing barbaric laws like this one, if they had the chance. (And if you think using the word "barbaric" in this context is "Orientalist" or otherwise politically incorrect, you should complain to Ashtiari's lawyer, Mohammed Mostafaei, since I'm quoting him.) So by signing this petition, you would be signaling your support for and solidarity with them, in addition to Sakineh Ashtiani and her family.

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. And here is a recent CNN report on the case of Sakineh Ashtiani: