Iranian woman awaits stoning decision

The chief of Iran's judiciary is to decide whether to have a woman stoned to death for adultery, in a case which has outraged human rights activists around the world.

Ashraf Kalhori was sentenced to the punishment in 2002 after she was convicted of having an affair with her neighbour and of conspiring with him to kill her husband.

The judiciary head, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, declared a moratorium on stoning in December 2002, but it remains on the statute books and his decision could be reversed. Mrs Kalhori was taken from her prison cell last month and told by a special verdicts court that she would be executed within 15 days. After protests from her lawyer and international rights groups, Ayatollah Shahroudi is reviewing her case.

Shadi Sadr, the human rights lawyer representing Mrs Kalhori, says she is optimistic but that the case still demonstrates the psychological torture endured by women who face the death penalty.

At least eight other women in Iran were sentenced before the moratorium, and there are unconfirmed reports that a man and a woman were stoned to death by Revolutionary Guardsmen in a cemetery in the eastern city of Mashhad in May.

"We are campaigning to make Ayatollah Shahroudi's moratorium actually enacted in law," Mrs Sadr said. "While the law remains unchanged, cases of stoning can happen anywhere in the country despite Shahroudi's order because the head of the judiciary is not above the law."

She points to irregularities in the trial and sentencing which could help Mrs Kalhori. Under sharia law, an adulterer must confess four times in court. Mrs Kalhori confessed only once under police interrogation and later recanted.

According to Mrs Sadr, Mrs Kalhori is very religious, often fasting and praying. In the Evin prison, on the mountainous slopes of north Tehran, she has been made responsible for distributing prayer stones. "She is distraught because she hasn't seen her four children since she was taken to prison," Mrs Sadr said. "She told me: 'My children are now growing up with hatred and disgust for their mother'."

Mrs Kalhori's husband, Akbar Estiri, was killed in April 2002 after quarrelling with their neighbour, Mahmoud Mirzaei. She says that the killing was accidental but police say she was having an affair with Mr Mirzaei and encouraged the attack.

The sentence of stoning is for adultery, but she was also sentenced to 15 years in prison for her alleged part in the murder. Mrs Sadr says that if the stoning verdict is upheld it should not be implemented until after her prison term.

Mr Mirzaei received 100 lashes instead of stoning for adultery because he was unmarried, but was sentenced to death for the murder. However, this cannot be carried out for another nine years, when the youngest of the Kalhori children turns 18 and can decide to take blood money instead.

Human rights groups also say that issues such as stoning can divert attention from abuses for political crimes. Last week, a student leader, Akbar Mohammedi, died while on hunger strike in prison. A liberal academic, Ramin Jahanbegloo, has been held without trial for several months.

Rights groups say incidences of such cases have increased since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's election because officials do not expect him to interfere. They also point to an apparent strategy for countering political opposition by relaxing social rules while cracking down on political dissent.

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