Alarm over the plight of an Iranian mother-of-two, who had been sentenced to death by stoning following a conviction for adultery, was reignited yesterday after she unexpectedly appeared on state television seemingly implicating herself in the murder of her husband.
The Foreign Office said it was "appalled" by the broadcast, and deeply concerned by the claim of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani's defence lawyer that the 43-year-old's "confession" was forced out of her after she had been tortured in prison in Tabriz where she was being held.
The lawyer warned that her appearance might signal an imminent execution, perhaps by hanging. However, Al Jazeera in Iran reported a judiciary source saying she would probably not be put to death during Ramadan which runs until 9 September.
Iran announced last month that the death-by-stoning sentence had been suspended in Ms Ashtiani's case. However, that did not mean she was spared from execution, and the regime has continued to come under fierce pressure from international human rights groups and several governments – in particular the US government – to reduce the severity of her punishment.
Amnesty International was among those challenging Iran over the television appearance, during which her words spoken in Azeri were dubbed over by a Farsi-speaking interpreter, and her face was partially obscured, making it impossible to determine if it was really Ms Ashtiani.
"This so-called confession forms part of a growing catalogue of other forced confessions and self-incriminating statements made by many detainees in the past year," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty's Middle East deputy director.
"Statements made in such televised exchanges should have no bearing on Iran's legal system, or the call to review her case. This latest video shows nothing more than the lack of evidence against Sakineh Ashtiani." Viewers in Iran heard Ms Ashtiani explain the circumstances of her late husband's death. "I established telephone contacts with a man in 2005. He deceived me by his language... He told me 'let's kill your husband.' I could not believe at all that my husband would be killed. I thought he was joking... Later I learned that killing was his profession."
She said the man, allegedly a cousin, murdered him by electrocution as she watched. "He came [to our house] and brought all the stuff. He brought electrical devices, plus wire and gloves."
Brazil, which in recent months has stood out among nations in cultivating closer ties with Iran, joined the chorus of countries unsettled by the case of Ms Ashtiani. It has gone so far as to publicly offer her asylum.
The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, this week called on Iran to stop implementing the death penalty so freely, including for convicted homosexuals and political dissidents.
By attempting to portray Ms Ashtiani as a murderer – or at least an accomplice to murder – rather than an adulterer, Iran may be seeking to blunt criticism from the US, where most states allow the death penalty in homicide cases. The new narrative has been contradicted by Ms Ashtiani herself who has claimed in newspaper interviews that she had previously been acquitted of murder.
Mrs Clinton said the US "urges the Iranian government to halt these executions in accordance with its obligations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and calls for the immediate release of all political prisoners an imprisoned human rights defenders".
Iranian state television has been the vehicle for numerous public "confessions" by individuals who have fallen foul of the Islamic regime.