Eight women are at "imminent risk" of being stoned to death for adultery in Iran, Amnesty International said today as it urges the Iranian authorities to commute the sentences and enforce an immediate moratorium on the "horrendous" practice. Iran ultimately should abolish stoning entirely and stop executing people for adultery, the human rights organisation said in statement to coincide with International Women's Day yesterday.
"Women are not treated equally in Iran, in the home and in the courts, and this means that they are particularly at risk," said Kate Allen, Amnesty International's UK director. The organisation added that women are especially vulnerable "to unfair trials because in Iran they are more likely than men to be illiterate and more likely to sign confessions for crimes they did not commit". Women condemned to stoning - which mostly happens in the absence of a good defence - usually have suffered violence, been forced into marriage or had divorce applications rejected, local human rights activists say.
Amnesty International, together with Iranian campaigners, is highlighting the plight of several women on death row who face this penalty. Typical is the case of a woman identified only as Khayrieh who suffered domestic violence at the hands of her husband. He was murdered by a male relative with whom Khayrieh had an affair. She denied involvement in her husband's death but acknowledged committing adultery and "so is at risk of execution by stoning", Amnesty International said.
"Women and men inside Iran are fighting for an end to this horrendous practice and in some cases they have met with success. But we must show them international support," Ms Allen said. Ayatollah Shahroudi, the head of Iran's judiciary, is known to be uncomfortable with stoning which has been condemned vociferously by the European Union and United Nations. He announced a moratorium on the punishment in 2002, but at least six people reportedly have been stoned to death in the past three years.
Stonings, which are usually carried out in secrecy to prevent attracting damaging publicity and condemnation from abroad, are very rare in Iran where hanging is the usual form of punishment. Most of those sentenced to death by stoning for adultery are women. The most recent cases, which took place in December, were unusual because they involved three men and their punishment was announced at an official news conference, albeit weeks later after reports of the executions spread on the internet.
Two of the convicts died but the third, an Afghan man, managed to escape while stones were being hurled at him in a cemetery in the north-eastern city of Mashhad. In August, the judiciary said it has scrapped the punishment in Iran's new Islamic penal code, whose outlines have been adopted by parliament but whose details are currently being reviewed by deputies. However, Iranian human rights activists say the new code retains stoning as the punishment for adultery. The only difference, they say, is that if an individual prosecutor decides its implementation in a particular case would cast Iran in very bad light he can ask the head of the judiciary for an alternative penalty such as lashing or hanging.
International and local pressure does appear to have some impact. Two outspoken local groups working together, The Volunteer Lawyers' Network and the Stop Stoning Forever campaign, say they have saved the lives of eight women and a man in the past three years. But they want stoning as a penalty to be removed from Iran's statute books altogether. In a few cases the Iranian authorities have changed the method of execution, apparently to temper international opprobrium. In February, a 50-year-old music teacher found guilty of having an illicit affair with a 17-year-old female student was hanged: he had originally been sentenced to stoning. His family had argued that he had entered a temporary marriage with the girl and that his first wife was aware of it. This did not save him.
Amnesty International says Iran has the unenviable distinction of being the world's second most prolific executioner, putting to death at least 340 people last year, trailing only China, a far more populous country, which carried out 470 death sentences in 2007. At least 50 people have been executed in Iran this year, the human rights organisation says. firstname.lastname@example.org