As nine women and two men in Iran wait to be stoned to death, Amnesty International today called on the Iranian authorities to abolish death by stoning and impose an immediate moratorium on this horrific practice, specifically designed to increase the suffering of the victims.
In a new report published today, the organisation called on the authorities urgently to repeal or amend the country's Penal Code and to ensure total adherence in the meantime to a moratorium on stoning issued by the Head of the Judiciary in 2002.
"We welcome recent moves towards reform and reports that the Majles (Iran's parliament) is discussing an amended Penal Code that would permit the suspension of at least some stoning sentences, in cases where it is deemed 'expedient'," said Malcolm Smart, Director of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Amnesty International. "But the authorities must go much further, and take the steps needed to ensure that the new Penal Code neither permits stoning to death nor provides for execution by other means for adultery."
Iran's Penal Code prescribes execution by stoning. It even dictates that the stones are large enough to cause pain, but not so large as to kill the victim immediately. Article 102 of the Penal Code states that men should be buried up to their waists and women up to their breasts for the purpose of execution by stoning. Article 104 states, with reference to the penalty for adultery, that the stones used should "not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes; nor should they be so small that they could not be defined as stones".
The serious failings in the justice system commonly result in unfair trials, including in capital cases. Despite the moratorium imposed in 2002 and official denials that stoning sentences continued to be implemented in Iran, deaths by stoning have been reported. Ja'far Kiani was stoned to death on 5 July 2007 in the village of Aghche-kand, near Takestan in Qazvin province. He had been convicted of committing adultery with Mokarrameh Ebrahimi, with whom he had two children and who was also sentenced to death by stoning. The stoning was carried out despite a stay of execution ordered in his case and in defiance of the 2002 moratorium.
It was the first officially confirmed stoning since the moratorium, although a woman and a man are known to have been stoned to death in Mashhad in May 2006. There are fears that Mokarrameh Ebrahimi may yet suffer the same fate. She is in Choubin prison, Qazvin province, apparently with one of her two children.
Amnesty International is equally worried about the remaining eight women and two men who may face the same fate, and whose cases are highlighted in the new report.
The majority of those sentenced to death by stoning are women. Women suffer disproportionately from such punishment. One reason is that they are not treated equally before the law and courts, in clear violation of international fair trial standards. They are particularly vulnerable to unfair trials because they are more likely than men to be illiterate and therefore more likely to sign confessions to crimes they did not commit. Discrimination against women in other aspects of their lives also leaves them more susceptible to conviction for adultery.
In spite of this gloomy reality, there are grounds to hope that death by stoning will be completely abolished in Iran in the future. Courageous efforts are being made by local human rights defenders in Iran who launched the "Stop Stoning Forever" campaign following the May 2006 stonings in Mashhad. Since they began, their efforts have helped save four women and one man - Hajieh Esmailvand, Soghra Mola’i, Zahra Reza'i, Parisa A and her husband Najaf - from stoning. As well, another woman, Ashraf Kalhori, has had her stoning sentence temporarily stayed.
"We urge the Iranian authorities to heed our calls, and those of the Iranians who are striving relentlessly to obtain an end to this horrendous practice,"said Malcolm Smart.
But these efforts have come at a high price. Campaigners in Iran continue to face harassment and intimidation from the authorities.
Asieh Amini, Shadi Sadr and Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh, another leading member of "Stop Stoning Forever", were among 33 women arrested while protesting in March 2007 about the trial of five women's rights activists in Tehran. Thirty-one of the detainees were released by 9 March. Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh and Shadi Sadr were released on bail of 200 million toumans (over US$215,000) on 19 March. They are likely to face trial, possibly on charges including "disturbing public order" and "acting against state security".
Human rights defenders in Iran believe that international publicity and pressure, in support of local efforts, can help bring about change in the country.