By Azam Gorgin and Charles Recknagel
Iran's controversial use of stoning as a means of execution has evoked new criticism from international human rights groups after Tehran sentenced three women to the punishment in recent months. Azam Gorgin of RFE/RL talks to human rights representatives to learn how the practice in Iran particularly targets women and why it continues.
Prague, 4 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Three cases in recent months have put execution by stoning back in the center of the human rights debate over Iran.
Late last year, a woman named Maryam Ayoubi was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery and murdering her husband in collaboration with her lover. That case is now before Iran's Supreme Court on appeal.
Then, in May, a woman was stoned to death in Tehran's Evin prison. She had been convicted of acting in pornographic films and having sexual relationships outside marriage.
And last month, Iran's criminal justice court sentenced yet another woman and her lover to death for adultery and the murder of her husband. Both the man and the woman -- identified only by her first name, Robabeh -- have been ordered to undergo 100 lashes before their execution. The man is to die by hanging, while the women is to be stoned to death.
The three cases have attracted the attention of international human rights groups because they show that Tehran is still far from abandoning stoning as a means of execution.
Drewery Dyke of Amnesty International in London tells RFE/RL that in recent years Iran has imposed stoning sentences only sporadically. Until this year, he says, the last stonings were reported in 1997.
"Amnesty International has recorded sentences for adultery and murder that have resulted in stoning. However, according to the information that Amnesty International has, there has not been a stoning carried out [for several years] until this year. The one before this was in 1997."
Human rights groups strongly object to any cases of stoning because they consider it a particularly cruel form of execution that prolongs the agony of the condemned person. And they say it violates international conventions, some of which Tehran itself has signed.
Elahe Hicks of Human Rights Watch in New York calls stoning a form of torture:
"We believe that stoning is a part of torturing before death, and that is why it is a violation of Iran's obligations under international human rights law."
Stoning is a pre-Islamic punishment. It was once practiced in many parts of the world, but in recent years has been almost entirely abandoned except in a few countries -- principally Afghanistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
For the execution, the condemned person is wrapped head to foot in white shrouds and buried in a pit. A woman is buried up to her armpits, while a man is buried up to his waist. A truckload of rocks is brought to the site and court-appointed officials -- or in some cases ordinary citizens approved by the authorities -- carry out the stoning.
Victims are guaranteed a slow, torturous death because the stones are deliberately chosen to be large enough to cause pain, but not so large as to kill the victim immediately. If the condemned person somehow manages to survive the stoning, he or she will be imprisoned for as long as 15 years but will not be executed.
Many women's rights activists consider stoning as a harsh punishment that particularly singles out women. Not only does stoning require burying a woman deeper than a man -- a practice proponents say is to protect the woman's bosom -- it also is used against women more often than against men.
Nayereh Tohidi, a lecturer at California State University in Northridge, says stoning is a double-standard punishment:
"There is a double standard here, even though the practice is applied to both men and women, because it is usually a punishment implemented in regards to sexually related offenses, like adultery. Due to double standards in sexual norms due to the patriarchal culture, women are susceptible to be blamed for sexual misbehavior and to be accused of sexual offences. Therefore, it is more likely stoning will be implemented against women than against men."
"It all goes back to [a] double standard of sexuality and an obsession with sexual offenses as being the most important issue -- from the clerics' point of view -- as the source of corruption in the society. While they easily ignore the problems of [drug] addiction and bribery, they cannot forgive sexual offenses."
The practice of stoning is controversial not only for international rights groups but also within Iran itself. Tohidi says it has been criticized in the past by former President Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who called it a backward practice carried out by judges in rural areas.
But women's rights specialists say that the practice remains unchallenged in Iran because judges are allowed to apply their own selective interpretations of the law. Tohidi says:
"There is no Koranic command to use stoning to death as a way of punishing men or women. Nevertheless, this has been practiced sporadically in some provinces of Iran by some Islamic judges, some mullahs, based on their own selective interpretation and selective use of some traditions."
Hicks of Human Rights Watch says that some officials have told her that they do not approve of stoning as punishment for adultery because of the difficulty of proving criminal adultery has actually occurred.
Under Iran's Islamic law, proving that an act of adultery has been committed requires four fair and unbiased witnesses. Or the guilty party has to confess four times. But critics say the witness requirements are not fully observed in many cases and confessions may be extracted under duress. That makes many human rights activists question whether defendants in adultery cases in fact receive fair trials.
International human rights leaders have repeatedly expressed their concern over stoning cases to top Iranian officials, but they say they have received no response.
Hicks says that both UN special investigator on Iran for human rights Maurice Copithorne and UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson took up the case of Maryam Ayoubi with top Iranian officials this year.
"We are aware that Mr. Copithorne directly asked Mr. [Abbas] Alizadeh, the head of the justice department in Tehran -- while [Alizadeh] was visiting Geneva in April -- and Mr. Alizadeh said he is not aware of such a case. And we are aware that Mary Robinson asked about this case when she was visiting Iran in February and Zahra Shojaie, special adviser to President Khatami for women's issues, said she has no idea about this case."
While most attention over stoning has focused on its targeting of women and on the suffering of the victims, some critics says stoning creates other hidden victims -- those members of the public who are taught to accept the practice as normal and to take part in it. Tohidi says:
"Actually, many people do not participate, but those who do are already indoctrinated to accept this violent behavior as part of their ethical and religious duties and this will help perpetuate a violent mentality and kind of desensitize people toward this barbaric and violent behavior. So to make it a public event and bring people [to it], with some people who stand and watch in a rather shocked manner, [well] I am sure this will leave its negative mark in their psychology for the rest of their lives."
So far, an execution date has yet to be set for either Maryam Ayoubi or the defendant known as Robabeh.