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Death by stoning: cruel, abhorrent, and unjust

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 08 July 2010

Stoning people to death is always unacceptable, but in the case of the Iranian woman facing the punishment imminently it is also utterly unjust, Human Rights Watch's Nadya Khalife tells Channel 4 News.

Reuters, stones

Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani, 43 is facing imminent death by stoning in Iran after being convicted of adultery in 2007.

An open letter sent by her son this week in a bid to save her life has galvanised the international community.

Governments, human rights organisations and celebrities have stepped up the pressure on Iran, with the UK's Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt saying "stoning is a medieval punishment that has no place in the modern world."

Human Rights Watch's Middle East women's rights researcher Nadya Khalife told Channel 4 News that international pressure was essential to save Ms Mohammadi-Ashtiani's life, particularly as her conviction was only based on the "hunch" of three judges, rather than evidence.

She said Iran was already isolated in the Middle East as well as globally in continuing to sentence people to death by stoning - the procedure is only codified in law in Iran, Nigeria and the Sudan, according to the Global Campaign to Stop Killing and Stoning Women.

Since 2006, 15 people have been saved from stoning - two men and 13 women, largely by the efforts of human rights activists and lawyers.

"In Iran, stonings happen, but they are not as common as people would like to think," she said.

"There are a few cases every year – but every case is abhorrent and this is an unacceptable form of punishment.

What is death by stoning?
The prisoner is buried either up to his waist (if male) or up to her shoulders (if female) and then pelted with stones by a crowd of volunteers until obviously battered to death. Under the terms of most fundamentalist courts, the stones must be small enough that death cannot reasonably be expected to result from only one or two blows, but large enough to cause physical harm. The average execution by stoning is extremely painful, lasting at least 10 to 20 minutes. (Tom Head, author of Civil Liberties: a beginner's guide)

"In the Middle East generally, stoning is not an acceptable form of punishment. It only really happens in Iran.

"Some people say it is in sharia law, but other countries which have sharia law don’t have stoning. It depends on the interpretation and what you want to include."

A 'cruel way to punish someone'  
"Both men and women can get stoned to death for adultery. Men are buried up to their waist, and women up to their chest.

"There is a provision in the law that if you can dig yourself out of the hole and run away, you can be set free. But obviously it is difficult for a woman buried up to her chest to run away while she is being stoned.

"There are types of stones that have to be used so that the person being stoned is not immediately killed, so that they suffer until they die. It is a very cruel way to punish someone.

International pressure needed
"International pressure is needed. The advocates inside the country are not allowed to put pressure on, or they are not getting anywhere. You have got to have international pressure. Iran has signed a number of treaties and needs to be held accountable.

"There was a moratorium in 2002 against stoning, and that needs to be taken seriously.

"Human Rights Watch opposes all forms of capital punishment including stoning, but this case is a particularly abhorrent case.

"There is no concrete evidence against Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani. She confessed to adultery, but under duress and then retracted her confession.

"However, in Iran’s penal code judges can give a guilty verdict in moral cases, including adultery, without having hard evidence. They decide based on their own "knowledge".

"In a panel of five judges, two said she was innocent. Three said she was guilty - on their own "knowledge". For her to be convicted again and sentenced to be stoned to death just on three judges' "knowledge" that she did it when there was no other evidence is incredible."

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