Under Islamic laws as applied in Iran, the punishment for adultery is stoning. It is widely considered to be among the cruelest of punishments. Women are buried up to their chests in a pit; men are buried up to their waists. And their hands are tied behind their backs.
Then, as lawyer Elham Fahimi explains, they are struck with rocks until they die.
"They put them in a hole and they wrap them in a kafan [a white sheet used for burial] -- this is how it should be done, according to the law," Fahimi says. "Then they call on those who have not committed any crimes to come and throw stones."
Death by stoning is slow and painful. Islamic code prescribes that "the stone should not be so big as to kill the offender with one or two stones" and "nor should it be as small as pebbles."
The latest case of a judicially ordered stoning was reportedly carried in early May in a cemetery in the holy city of Mashhad in eastern Iran.
A woman, identified as Mahboubeh M., and a man, identified as Abbas H., had been convicted of committing adultery and murdering the woman's husband. Activists say that before the two were stoned to death, they were treated like "lifeless corpses." They were given final ablutions and then buried in a hole in the ground. Reports claim that more than 100 members of Iran's Revolutionary Guard and Basij paramilitary forces participated in the stoning.
The case alarmed and outraged women's rights activists. Their investigations suggested that judges in several cities have continued to condemn people to death by stoning, despite the reported moratorium.
Women's rights activist Mahboubeh Abbasgholizadeh tells RFE/RL that one of the reasons new stonings are being ordered is because the moratorium was not enshrined in law.
"Since under our laws, judges are independent, one reason [for continued stonings] might be that with the new government [of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad] coming to power and the change in the political atmosphere, judges who are in favor of such sentences have become more active," Abbasgholizadeh says. "Therefore, we think stoning should be banned by law -- otherwise judges can issue such sentences as they desire."
Abbasgholizadeh says it is unclear how many stoning sentences have been issued and carried out in Iran since reports of the moratorium emerged four years ago.
"Currently they don't carry out stoning in public. I don't know [why], maybe because of public opinion or international pressure," Abbasgholizadeh says. "Now it seems that they do it in the prison courtyards by prisoners or prison guards [casting the stones]. I even know...a political prisoner who was detained three or four years ago and had seen from his cell that they brought a woman and forced other female detainees to stone her."
The head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, has not reacted publicly to the activists' calls for an end to stonings.
Parliamentarian Elham Aminzadeh was quoted by Iranian media as saying after a trip to Brussels in mid-October that stoning sentences are no longer being handed down in Iran. She said EU officials had asked about the resumption of the practice. Aminzadeh said they had referred to an Amnesty International statement and an Internet list, which she described as invalid.
Abbasgholizadeh dismisses Aminzadeh's claim and says rights activists have carefully documented stoning cases.
"We don't speak without proof," Abbasgholizadeh says. "This lady speaks in a way that shows she's denying stoning and saying that the judiciary has replaced it with other sentences. This means she's saying stoning should not exist. Our point is that as long as [a ban] doesn't become law, judges can [issue stoning sentences] and are doing it. So this lady, who is a legislator and opposes it, should make the ban a legal one."
On October 10, Amnesty International Secretary-General Irene Khan called on Iran to abolish stoning "immediately and totally."
Activists have published the names of nine women and two men whom they claim have been sentenced to death by stoning.
One of them is Shamameh Malek Ghorbani, who was reportedly sentenced to stoning in June after relatives found a man in her home. Amnesty International reported that her brothers and husband murdered the man and also stabbed Ghorbani with a knife.
Fahimi, who is serving as Ghorbani's lawyer, tells RFE/RL that the case is being reexamined by a higher court.
"She is in Orumyeh prison," Fahimi says. "Her crime is adultery, and she has been sentenced to stoning. I visited her while my colleague went to Qom to study her case, which is before the Qom supreme court. The sentence has most probably been overturned."
Reports suggest that the stoning sentence against another woman identified by Amnesty International, Ashraf Kalhori, has also been suspended.
But activists are determined to continue their efforts until the practice is rooted out of Iran.
Women's rights defenders say adultery cannot be considered as deserving of such harsh punishment. They are quick to add that "no crime deserves to be punished by stoning."
With officials largely silent on the issue except to deny that it occurs, it is unclear how many more Iranians might be stoned to death before authorities throughout the country are forced to agree.
Women In Iran
Women in Tehran (epa file photo)
CALLING FOR MORE RIGHTS: Although women played key roles in Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, the place of women in post-revolutionary society has been a vexing question. Iranian women have struggled to bring attention to their calls for greater rights in their country's rigid theocratic system, calls that have often clashed with the values proclaimed by conservatives in society. (more)
For a regular review of civil-society developments throughout RFE/RL's broadcast region, subscribe to "RFE/RL (Un)Civil Societies."