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Katherine Butler: clemency would suit Tehran's interests

An Iranian man who has grown tired of his wife has options. He can divorce her with impunity, but he doesn't even have to go to that much trouble.

Adultery is a capital crime for both sexes, but men can avoid committing it simply by entering into a legal temporary "marriage" with another, or several other women, a figleaf arrangement which can be as short as a few hours' duration. A married woman faces a more brutal prospect if she falls into the arms of another man. If convicted, she can be sentenced not just to the death penalty, but to death by stoning.

The barbaric punishments reserved for Iranian women under laws enshrined in Iran as recently as 1979 barely registered on the international radar until the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani began to be reported earlier this year. If the 43-year-old mother has now been released, and her situation was far from clear last night, her freedom will be rightly hailed by campaigners as a victory for the power of international protest. The Tehran regime operates an impressive internal propaganda machine and filters the internet, so that everything can be depicted as evidence of a conspiracy by Western enemies to destabilise the revolution. But the ruling cabal will nevertheless have been embarrassed by the unwelcome attention the Ashtiani case attracted. Stoning cases are usually kept quiet, even within Iran. It was a sign that the regime was at least rattled when Carla Bruni-Sarkozy was labelled "a prostitute" for adding her support to the campaign against stoning Ashtiani.

Yet, even if Ashtiani's life has been spared, it is unlikely to signal either a relaxation either of the extraordinarily harsh interpretation of Sharia law that the Islamic Republic applies to women, or of the campaign of repression unleashed after last year's elections on those associated with the popular "green" uprising. Tactically, it may be convenient to show clemency now, just as Iran is back in talks with the West on its nuclear programme. The same motivation may explain the release on bail this week of Hossein Derakhshan, a pioneering blogger who was sentenced to 19 years in jail in September as part of a crackdown on the independent media.

But scores of students, dissidents, activists, journalists, lawyers and even clerics who have spoken out in criticism of the hardline regime headed by Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, remain in jail or on death row.

Nasrin Sotoudeh, is one of them. An associate of the Nobel peace prize-winning lawyer Shirin Ebadi, she was detained in September, accused of "acting against national security" and is now on hunger strike. Supporters fear for her life and her case has been taken up by international campaigners. Many others are not lucky enough to be even known about before they are tortured to death or hanged.