(Beirut) - A televised confession by Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani heightens the already grave concern that Iran will soon execute the 43-year-old woman, Human Rights Watch said today.
Ashtiani, initially sentenced to death by stoning after being convicted in 2006 of adultery, told state-run television on August 11, 2010, that she participated in the murder of her husband. Iranian officials have repeatedly suggested over the past several weeks, in response to the international outcry over the stoning sentence, that Ashtiani murdered her husband.
"The men who run Iran apparently have no shame at all, first pronouncing the barbaric sentence of death by stoning and then resorting to a televised confession," said Nadya Khalife, Middle East women's rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. "Under the circumstances there is every reason to believe that this so-called confession was coerced."
During the televised interview, Ashtiani's face was blurred and her words were voiced over with translations from her mother tongue, Azeri, into Farsi. In the broadcast Ashtiani also criticized her previous lawyer, Mohammad Mostafaei, who sought refuge in Norway after Iranian security forces threatened him and his family, accusing him of publicizing her case so he could gain asylum abroad.
Four days earlier, Ashtiani told The Guardian newspaper, through an intermediary, that an Iranian court had "acquitted" her in 2006 of conspiring to murder her husband.
"They're lying," she told The Guardian. "They are embarrassed by the international attention on my case and they are desperately trying to distract attention and confuse the media so that they can kill me in secret."
On May 15, 2006, a criminal court in East Azerbaijan province found Ashtiani guilty of having an "illicit relationship" with two men following the death of her husband in 2005. The court sentenced her to flogging, and she was given 99 lashes. In September 2006, in a separate case, the government put a man to whom it referred to as "Isa T.," on trial for the murder of Ashtiani's husband and also put her on trial for conspiracy to murder.
At that point another court opened a separate adultery case against her based on events that allegedly took place before her husband's death, convicted her of "adultery during marriage," and sentenced her to death by stoning. During this trial, Ashtiani retracted a confession she had made during a pretrial interrogation, alleging that it had been coerced. She has continued to deny the adultery charge.
Iran's penal code allows judges in hodud (morality) crimes such as adultery to use their own "knowledge" to determine guilt in the absence of direct evidence. Mostafaei, her former lawyer, said in a posting on his blog, Modafe', that two of the five judges found Ashtiani not guilty during the adultery trial but that the three remaining judges found her guilty on the basis of their own "knowledge." Ashtiani was convicted three to two.
In public statements, Mostafaei and Ashtiani's present lawyer, Javid Kian, said that Ashtiani was never convicted of murder and was ultimately only sentenced to prison for "disturbing the public order" during the 2006 trial. The victim's family eventually forgave both Ashtiani and her alleged accomplice, which under Iranian law amounts to a legal pardon from the death penalty. The man convicted of actually committing the murder paid "blood money" to the victim's family and was later freed, while Ashtiani was sentenced to 10 years in prison on the "disturbing the public order" charge. In addition, her death sentence in the separate adultery case remains in effect.
Kian told Human Rights Watch that his client's latest confession on state television was coerced by authorities. He referred to her televised confession as a "pantomime" and remarked, "It's obvious that she [was under pressure]. We should only be surprised if this were not the case." Kian also told Human Rights Watch that he is awaiting the Supreme Court's final ruling on whether his client's execution will go forward and expects to receive word within the next few days. He added that prison authorities have prevented him from meeting his client during the past couple of days.
On July 12, the Judiciary temporarily halted Ashtiani's stoning sentence after the case attracted international attention, but officials said that she may be hanged. On August 1, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil offered Ashtiani asylum, but the Iranian government rejected Brazil's offer and said that da Silva did not have enough information on her case.
Authorities have held Ashtiani at the Tabriz prison, in the eastern province of Azerbaijan, since 2006. Mostafaei fled Iran after authorities issued a warrant for his arrest but instead arrested his wife, Fereshteh Halimi, and his brother-in-law, Farhad Halimi, when he went into hiding and held them for more than a week.
On August 2 in Turkey, Mostafaei asked the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for asylum in a third country. On August 8, Norway granted Mostafaei asylum and he entered the country. Iran alleges that Mostafaei, who had long been active in representing juveniles in death penalty cases, was involved in improper financial transactions in connection with accounts he helped set up for juvenile clients condemned to death.
Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances as an inherently cruel and unusual form of punishment and a violation of fundamental human rights.