Woman sentenced to death by stoning could now be hanged instead

Rupert Cornwell
Wednesday 29 September 2010 00:00

Confusion surrounded the fate of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani yesterday, the Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, who now faces execution by hanging for the alleged murder of her husband, according to some reports.

The government says no final decision has been taken in a case that has generated outrage around the world, as the adultery and murder issues are still before the courts. A final judgement would be announced only when that process is completed, Ramin Mehmanparast, the foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters in Tehran.

But he indicated that the focus was shifting to a charge of murder, and seemed to suggest that Ms Ashtiani's guilt was not in doubt. "Right now, what we are pursuing is the topic of murder, and her participation in murder is confirmed," he said.

Earlier, two local news agencies had produced conflicting versions of events, with one saying she had been sentenced to death by hanging for the murder of her husband. Another, however, reported that the original stoning sentence had been confirmed, and that Ms Ashtiani had been given a 10-year prison sentence for being an accomplice to the murder.

The developments came after statements by senior Iranian officials indicating that the stoning sentence had been suspended, most recently by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who said during his visit to the United Nations General Assembly last week that news of the sentence had been "made up". His remarks were seen as a sign that the authorities, embarrassed by the outcry over stoning, were now trying to present Ms Ashtiani as a cold-blooded murderess who would get the punishment she deserved.

The President drew a comparison between the global publicity given to her case, and the scant protest over Teresa Lewis, the first woman executed by the US state of Virginia in nearly a century, who was put to death by lethal injection on 23 September for the murder of her husband and stepson.

Ms Ashtiani, 43, a mother of two, has been on death row in Tabriz since 2006 after being sentenced to stoning for adultery. Since it became public last year, her treatment has become yet another bone of contention between Iran and its Western critics.

So heated did the exchanges become that one state-run Iranian paper accused Carla Bruni of being "a prostitute", after the wife of French President Nicolas Sarkozy spoke out in support of Ms Ashtiani.

Human rights groups say the treatment of Ms Ashtiani highlights the shortcomings of Iran's judicial system. They claim her original confession of adultery was coerced. A sentence now of death by hanging for the murder of her husband would be another travesty of justice, according to Amnesty International.

Ms Ashtiani was arrested in 2005 for that murder, but she was convicted on a lesser charge of participation in murder and sentenced to the maximum term of 10 years in prison. In 2009, according to her lawyer Javid Houtan Kiyan, the conviction was changed to "complicity" in murder, and the sentence reduced to five years.

By next year, she would have served it in full, Amnesty says. For the courts now to sentence her to death for murder would breach the international ban on "double jeopardy", of a person being tried and convicted twice for the same offence.

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