Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani's sentence of death by stoning has focussed renewed international attention on Iran's judicial system. A blog written by Ms Ashtiani's lawyer, and the public courage shown by her son and daughter, have provoked enough international outrage for the Iranian government to change the method of punishment to hanging. It is, however, feared that Ms Ashtiani will be executed soon, particularly because she has appeared on state-run Iranian television and ‘confessed' to involvement in the murder of her husband as well as adultery with a man who was convicted of that murder but was pardoned by her son. Ms Ashtiani's lawyer, Houtan Kian, says she was beaten and tortured in prison until she agreed to appear on camera. There seem also to have been several breaches of legal procedure. In 2006, she was convicted of “illicit relationships” and punished with 99 lashes; subsequently a charge of adultery while she was married was laid against her. This time she was convicted and sentenced to death by stoning. Since two of the five judges in the second hearing acquitted her, she should not have been sentenced to death under Iranian law. The second conviction, furthermore, was made on the basis of “judge's knowledge,” a weird provision that allows judges to make rulings even where there are no witnesses and conclusive evidence is lacking.

Brutalities of many kinds are involved here. Death by stoning is so cruel that Iran, which is heir to one of the world's great ancient civilisations, censors reports of it. The Chief Justice's 2002 moratorium on it has never been formalised in the national penal code. Secondly, male victims of stoning are buried only up to the waist and if they can pull themselves clear are allowed to go free; women are buried up to the neck lest their breasts be exposed, and almost certainly cannot escape. Thirdly, hanging in Iran relies on slow strangulation. The country is not alone in imposing capital punishment in extremely brutal ways; Saudi Arabia is a fellow-perpetrator. Iran has executed 100 people so far this year, and another 15 currently await execution. If there is any light behind this cloud, it is that Ms Ashtiani's case has triggered arguments among the country's highest leaders, at least about death by stoning. The overriding issue, of course, is the imperative need for all civilised societies to abolish the death penalty. No fewer than 130 countries have either abolished the death penalty or have not implemented it for ten years. It is to be hoped that Ms Ashtiani's case will lead India to consider abolishing this barbaric punishment.

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