x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Saved from stoning, still on death row: Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani

Found guilty of adultery and originally ordered by a court to face death by stoning, she sits in a prison cell, her children still working to get her released.

Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National
Illustration by Kagan McLeod for The National

She is a simple Iranian housewife, a widow who cannot read or write and a mother of two children. A photograph of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani shows an unremarkable woman with a steady, solemn gaze, black headscarf pulled tight around her face like a bonnet. Yet in the space of a week, this single image, reproduced countless times in the world's media, has turned Ashtiani, 43, into an international cause célèbre for human rights activists, western liberal politicians and Hollywood stars appalled by the harshness of her punishment for allegedly committing adultery.

She was sentenced to be stoned to death, a process that would have taken her out of her cell without warning, after which she would have been buried in earth up to her chest and pelted with stones no bigger than the size of the palm of a hand until she died of her injuries. From her isolated cell in Tabriz, the capital of Eastern Azerbaijan province on the northern tip of Iran, she has no way of watching the international furore unfold and gain momentum over her tragic case.

Her legal representative, Mohammad Mostafaei, a prominent human rights lawyer in Tehran, last saw her five months ago, and says she feels "sad and hopeless". Even now she is probably unaware that in the space of a few days millions of people around the world have learnt her name. She will be told on Monday, when her 21-year-old son Sajjad is allowed his weekly 15-minute visit. If Ashtiani is to live, she will have the devotion and love of her children to thank. When the sentence seemed inevitable, Sajjad and his sister Faride, 16, turned to the only means that they believed could save their mother's life - the pressure of a high-profile international media campaign, which they launched with the help of Iranian dissidents and women's activists living in exile in Europe and America.

The strategy has involved organising peaceful protests in major cities such as London, Washington, Stockholm and Sydney due to take place next week. Sajjad has spoken to the television channel CNN about the horror of losing a beloved mother, and rights groups have petitioned powerful politicians and celebrities. There are Facebook groups dedicated to Ashtiani that have thousands of supporters. Film stars such as Colin Firth and Emma Thompson have signed up to the campaign, while John Kerry, the chairman of the American Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Catherine Ashton, the European Union policy chief, have demanded that the Iran government stop the punishment.

Even the actress Lindsay Lohan added her voice, just hours after being sentenced to three months in prison herself for parole violations. Carrying more impact, William Hague, the British foreign secretary, called for a reprieve, saying: "If the punishment is carried out it will disgust and appal the watching world." Now there are signs the Iranians are cracking under the pressure. On Thursday, the Iranian embassy in London released a statement saying that Ashtiani would not be executed by stoning.

But that does not mean her life has been saved. Her fate now rests with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei who has the power to grant clemency. Not many details are known about Ashtianis life and case, but her troubles began after her husband was murdered under unknown circumstances in 2005. Two men were taken into custody and both claimed they had sexual relations with Ashtiani. In May 2006, a criminal court found her guilty of having an "illicit relationship" and sentenced her to 99 lashes for having sex outside of marriage. Sajjad, then a teenager, witnessed his mother being flogged.

"The authorities asked if I wanted to wait outside. I said no. I could not leave my mother alone," he told CNN. In September of that year, during the murder trial of one of the accused, another court re-opened Mrs Ashtiani's case. This time she was accused of killing her husband and having extramarital sex with the accused men. But the police investigation found no evidence of murder and the court cleared her of the charge.

However, three of the five judges on the panel decided that, based on their intuition, she was guilty of having sex with the men when her husband was still alive. Under Iran's Islamic penal code a judge can make a ruling based on his personal opinion instead of evidence in morality cases. She was now convicted of the more serious crime of "fornication while being married" and sentenced to death by stoning.

The trial must have been bewildering to a woman who could not read any of the documents and barely write her name. Ashtiani recanted a confession of adultery obtained during the initial police investigation, claiming she made it under duress. She has denied all the allegations and repented for her sins. In May 2007, however, the supreme court upheld the stoning sentence. Her family spent the next three years exhausting every legal appeals process. Convinced of his mother's innocence, Sajjad has made the long trip to Tehran to appeal for clemency at least six times. He has also written dozens of letters to senior officials. All have been ignored.

Last week, one of her lawyers rang the alarm on his blog. Mrs Ashtiani could be executed any day, he warned. With nothing left to lose, her children took the audacious - and risky - step of taking the case to the world. They wrote a letter that has been circulating around the internet for several days. "Today we stretch out our hands to the people of the whole world. It is now five years that we have lived in fear and in horror, deprived of motherly love," the letter states. "Is the world so cruel that it can watch this catastrophe and do nothing about it?

"Since our childhood we have been acquainted with the pain of knowing that our mother is imprisoned and awaiting a catastrophe. To tell the truth, the term stoning is so horrific that we try never to use it. We instead say our mother is in danger, she might be killed, and she deserves everyone's help." The Iranian authorities may decide to hang Mrs Ashtiani instead, said Mina Ahadi, a Tabriz-born human rights activist now living in Germany, who helped to bring Ashtiani's plight to global attention.

"In that society it has been the case that they will sentence a woman to stoning but then go back and say instead she will be hanged. The Iranians say it is a better option. But that is not what we want to achieve. We want her to go home." Her story has echoes of Amina Lawal, the Nigerian single mother who was sentenced to be stoned to death for having a baby out of wedlock in 2001 but later cleared.

The tax collector who fathered the child escaped without punishment but she was due to die after she finished weaning her daughter. The case also prompted a massive international backlash. Italy and Brazil offered her asylum. In 2003, a panel of Nigerian judges overturned the conviction based on a series of technicalities that included the fact that police had produced no witnesses to the fornication.

Mrs Ashtiani has found herself at the mercy of a penal code based on highly-disputed readings of Sharia law. Only a handful of countries including Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan and Sudan have stoning of adulterers as a legal punishment, although Iran has considered banning it in recent years. The vast majority of Muslim countries have long since removed it from their legal codes. The Quran very clearly states that adultery must be punished. But what that punishment might be, the sacred text does not say. There is no mention of stoning.

Sharia law however calls for capital punishment of husbands and wives convicted of having extramarital relations. But there are rigorous conditions attached, Islamic scholars say. To secure the death penalty four "able" Muslim men must witness the actual act and testify in court. Some scholars say it is virtually impossible to meet such a stringent requirement, so the death penalty should not apply.

The practice of stoning adulterers is based on a hadith, which are sayings or actions attributed to the Prophet Mohammed. But whether or not the method is binding is disputed. Many clerics believe the horrifying penalty was simply meant to be a deterrent. Others take it literally. Since Ashtiani's story came to light, two other women in the prison have come forward, one aged 19 and one 25, who are also facing death by stoning for allegedly committing adultery.

The families of the young women have contacted the activist Mina Ahadi in Germany for help. Ms Ahadi said the younger girl was 15 when her husband accused her of adultery. She is being forced to endure mock executions. "She was buried in the ground up to her neck and told 'this is how you will die'," said Mrs Ahadi. "They have done it to her twice in prison. The girls' families are too scared to go public. But for Sakineh going public is the last hope."

@Email:hghafour@thenational.ae