Does Sakineh deserve to die?

Published: August 18, 2010

Sakineh has been sentenced to death by stoning by an Iranian court. PHOTO: GETTY

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is a young Iranian woman who was sentenced to death by stoning in Iran, a sentence that sparked an international outcry over  a practice that many see as archaic and barbaric. Since the initial sentence the twists and turns in events have moved rapidly.

The initial sentence was handed down by a court in Tabriz in May 2006, she was charged with committing adultery (despite the alleged incident occurring after the death of her husband) and was sentenced to 99 lashes, which was carried out. Then, in September she was convicted by another court, the details of which are still rather shaky, of adultery and of being an accomplice in the murder of her husband. But wait, is she being put to death for adultery? Or for murder? Or for both?

Statements made by officials aren’t very conclusive:

“In the first place, the allegation was murder,” the lawyer [this is Ashtiani's lawyer talking] told Babylon & Beyond. “She was accused of killing her husband, but as her children forgave her … she was pardoned and there was no more allegation against her. But to complicate the case, the court raised the issue of adultery.”

Sharifi declined to outline Ashtiani’s role in her husband’s death, saying it would be just too darn shocking for the public. [LA Times]

Despite the original cases being from 2006, developments this year have come thick and fast, here’s a roundup:

Some things to consider about the Iranian judicial system: while the judicial code is fundamentally based on Shia Islamic law, there are a number of innovations and adaptations that make Iranian law fundamentally unique. Chief among these are the introduction of circumstantial evidence (not just direct evidence) and an appeals process for the death penalty that give a High Court (not local courts) final say, two things that are not elements of traditional sharia law.

Having said that, neither of these are particularly likely to have an impact on Ashtiani’s case. The involvement of a High Court means that all the international pressure can have more impact than in a local case, there is also the paradox that the Iranian state will not want to appear like it has been influenced by “the West”. This would be an embarrassment to the regime and set an unwelcome precedent of foreign intervention being successful.

And while the presentation of circumstantial evidence certainly appears to make things more just, there are a number of other fundamental problems, such as the fact that the testimony of a male witness is still worth more than that of a woman (literally, it states that two female witnesses equal one man), and the difficulty of establishing rape, as opposed to adultery, when the alleged victim is a woman.

Personally, I oppose all forms of the death penalty, because I, like Albert Camus, believe it absurd for the State to kill a human being for such abstract and seemingly irrational reasons as concepts of “revenge” and “punishment”. Thus, I sincerely hope that Ashtiani is pardoned and can walk free, home to her two children. However, it must be noted that criticisms on this basis that are leveled at Iran by the US Government are also somewhat absurd.

In Hillary Clinton’s statement linked above, she says that the Department of State is:

“troubled by the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who garnered international attention for her verdict of death by stoning.”

One wonders what specifically about Ashtiani’s case troubles Clinton. Is it the fact that the means of execution will be stoning? Does this mean that Clinton wouldn’t condemn Iran if the means were changed to hanging? And what of  reports of stoning in other countries, such as Saudi Arabia (which is a US ally)? Or is it the fact that Ashtiani’s guilt, especially the murder charge, is seemingly not believable? In which case, to what extent would the US Government be willing to make statements on the judicial affairs of another country’s courts?

According to Amnesty International, a list of countries that used the death penalty in 2007 includes, apart from Iran, the United States itself, as well as US allies such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq and Taiwan, all in the top 10. Rather than selectively condemning high-profile cases such as Ashtiani’s, in countries that the US considers foes, it would make more sense to rethink the death penalty itself. Presumably the US Department of State wouldn’t look at each and every case to see if it was delivered fairly. Let alone the fact that it also carries out assassinations, outside the scope of the courts, on its own citizens.

Let me be clear. I strongly oppose the execution of Ashtiani. Yes, having read the news (largely organised by a mainstream media relying on the same sources and pushing the same narrative), the charges seem trumped up and yes, Iran’s human rights record is terrible. But the main reason for my opposition to her execution is that it is fundamentally absurd to execute a human being for past actions.

The broader debate should not be about pointing fingers at the questionable Iranian judicial process, such calls seem tainted by bias and selectivity and, pointed by Western hands, may do more harm than good in the largely adversarial political narrative between Iran and the West. The broader debate should be about whether our own hands are clean. Why should the State have the right to take the life of one of its citizens, not as a preventative measure, not as a successful deterrent, but purely based on some absurd concept of vengeance? What, specifically, is the benefit of this to the citizens of the State?

By all means, get involved in advocacy to save Ashtiani’s life, but also spend some time thinking about whether the death penalty in your own country makes rational sense. Remember, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is a young mother with two children. She does not deserve to die. Neither to do any of the other human beings currently languishing on death rows all over the world. Their deaths will not solve anyone’s problems.

This post was originally publisged here.

Alexander Lobov

Alexander Lobov

A financial journalist based in Hong Kong. Lobov was born in Belarus and raised in Australia, he also freelances and runs a blog - the Zeitgeist Politics - which covers global politics with a focus on the Middle East

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Sakina

    Interesting article…thanks for sharing the flip side of the story! :) Hope she gets justice…Recommend

  • ashlin

    supportin your voice. Recommend

  • Ayesha

    Every community has its own mores and it is really unfair to judge a culture other than in terms of cultural relativism. All rules are carefully drafted and crafted mores of a community executed by officers of high creditability.
    Apart from that I want to bring the focus of this discussion to a newer aspect.
    “Do you think one Iranian mother is a concern of US and the world? Do they care enough for her? and if they do then why do they have similar examples at home..Take an example of Doctor Afia Siddique..Take an example of millions and trillions detained to Abu Gharib and Guantanamo bay”

    I seriously suspect if this is propaganda, a media war to spread hate of Iran and affected da relations of Iran with other nations in the region!

    As far as stoning to death is concerned it is not new to the world, who is gaping as if they have come face to face with fresh horrors.Recommend

  • I_M_India

    @Ayesha,
    100% true,,,,I have been to Iran and I have seen these hangings,,,All those who are punished with death penalties truly deserve it. And it is a CNN voice, a BBC voice which everybody can see is clear here in this Blog. Recommend

  • http://www.zeitgeistpolitics.com Alexander Lobov

    Something for the guys arguing cultural relativism to think about: where does a ‘culture’ or ‘community’ begin and end? For example, Ashtiani is Azeri. She speaks a different language and is part of a separate ethnic group to most other Iranians. Does this mean she’s part of a different community with different rules? Or are national boundaries the ultimate deciding factor?

    If we’re talking about the latter then where do we draw the line? What about genocide in Rwanda, Darfur or Kosovo? How much attention should we pay to the boundaries of a nation-state when they are often drawn up arbitrarily, or as a result of land annexation (as is the case with Iran), and often shift (as is the case with Kosovo)? And where should we draw the line? Another great example is Israel. Should we ignore the ongoing oppression of Arab citizens of Israel just because they are citizens of the State of Israel? I would argue that we can’t. Or should we consider other divisions? Should liberal-minded Iranians be oppressed by a majority of conservative ones? Is it ok for women to be oppressed by clearly discriminatory law enshrined in legislation, such as “one man’s testimony is equivalent to that of two women”? There are no easy answers to these questions but I believe obsessing over national borders is a cop out.

    That’s why I believe that it’s ok to have an opinion on goings on outside of our own national boundaries. I personally believe that the death penalty is wrong, absurd and shouldn’t be practiced anywhere. I have no intention of trying to enforce this belief anywhere of course. That’s where an opinion is just an opinion. I encourage you all to also think about these issues on a global level. This post is designed to stimulate your minds about the death penalty, whether you agree or disagree with it, it would be nice to hear why. And as I stated several times in my post, it’s definitely not just about Iran.Recommend

  • Sarah

    I agree with Alexander Lobov !
    This is definitely a global issue and not just about Iran.Recommend

  • Madiha Mustafa

    Im ashammed to b a part of a muslim country…how cruel have we turned…r we still humans???we are worst then animals..That poor lady was killed but if she has really performed adultery then where is that man..who was equally a part of it..y is he left unpunished..who are we to decide whether we should punish someone or not..its ALLAh who has the powers…my heart is crying but its true that we wont b able to do anything..bcz it isnt the 1st first..hundreds of yrs have passed….and more hundreds will but this flow will continue..Recommend

  • muyyu

    @Alexander,
    You are hitting a brick wall here if you expect any muslim to unequivocally say that stoning to death is wrong. Look at Ayesha’s comment (a woman I presume) who is actually defending it on the basis of cultural relativism!
    Stoning to death as a punishment is very much a part of Sharia as are many others. The psychological impact of such punishments is that the population only becomes more brutal.. check out the entire muslim world….check the latest sialkot incident. Recommend

  • F. Alam

    As a Muslim & human being, I think stoning to death is not suitable or helpful in stopping social evils. Islam always left a door for Ijtihad where current day scholars can openly discuss issues and propose a better way. For example, stealing is punishable by cutting hand of the thief. Islamic state should first be a welfare state and then if someone steals, even that more than certain amount, a strict punishment can be given. Now add voice of Shah Wali Ullah. He said that ‘Qata Yad’ which is translated as ‘cut the hand’ more appropriately means ‘stop the hand’ from committing theft. Main purpose is to stop crimes etc and not punish anyone. I agree that the woman should not be punished as it will be, in a way, stating that Islam is not compatible with modern times.

    Having said that I agree that US department of justice etc do not care about ordinary women. As Ayesh, above, mentioned with examples that purpose behind such articles is ‘anti Iran’ campaign and not a human rights campaign. Lets call a spade a spade!Recommend