Sakineh Must Not Be Stoned

This is a new article about Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the young Iranian condemned to be stoned to death for alleged adultery. Except that this time, it is a last ditch appeal. And it has been signed, not only by the author of these lines, but by seventeen other writers, human rights activists, and politicians, both men and women, all of them indignant that such an abomination should exist in the 21st century: Soyinka, Patrick Modiano, Milan Kundera, Jorge Semprún, Ségolène Royal, Rachida Dati, Simone Veil, Marjane Satrapi, Juliette Binoche, Mia Farrow, Bob Geldof, Taslima Nasrin, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Jody Williams, Sussan Deyhim, Yann Richard, Elisabeth Badinter.

May their voices be heard in Tehran.

-Bernard-Henri Lévy

In the prison of Tabris, in western Iran, where she has been rotting for five years, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has been waiting for the response to her request to re-examine her case --initially scheduled for August 15th.

She had already paid for her "crime" (to which she confessed, we must recall, only under torture, and which her accusers state consists of having had amorous relations outside marriage on two occasions) by being subjected to 99 lashes with a whip, administered in the presence of one of her two children.

But now, a few months ago, a new and vague accusation has resulted in her condemnation to death -- and not just any death, for she is to be stoned to death! International public opinion, horrified at this threat hanging over Sakineh, had been waiting, as she has, for the revision of a verdict as iniquitous as it is barbarous. And then, on the evening of August 11th, there suddenly occurred one of these dramatic turns of events that have become almost common in Iran: on a popular television program, the regime broadcast the so-called "avowal" of the young woman who, wearing a black chador which covered all but her nose and one of her eyes, holding a sheet of paper in her hands as though reciting a lesson she was having trouble learning, a voice over in Farsi covering her own voice as she expressed herself in her native Azeri, confessed her supposed "complicity" in the murder of her husband. It was easy for her current counsel, Hutan Kian, to recall that Sakineh had already been acquitted of this new accusation in 2006.

Passing over serious doubts he could not but help nurture as to the identity of the woman who appeared that evening on the television screen, hidden beneath a full veil, he affirmed that, contrary to all appearances, she had been forced to make this declaration, once again, under torture.

And finally, he recalled that these words were clearly in contradiction with those reported by The Guardian, last week, in which the same Sakineh explained that the Iranian authorities had already cleared her of this infamous accusation in 2006. They were blatantly lying in going back to a charge that had long since been dropped, with the sole intent to spread confusion in the media and prepare them for a hasty execution. He added that "justice" was stubbornly pursuing her case only "because she is a woman", living in "a country where women are deprived of their most basic rights."

Sakineh is being deprived of the most basic of rights due to the fact that she hasn't even the right to a clear judgment in this affair, expressed in a language that she can understand. ("When the judge pronounced the sentence," she told The Guardian, "I did not even realize that I was going to be stoned to death, because I didn't know the meaning of the word 'rajam'. They asked me to sign the sentence, which I did, and when I got back to prison and my cellmates informed me that I was going to be stoned, I immediately fainted.") This has been confirmed by the trepidations of her former counsel, Mohammad Mostafaei, who attracted international attention to her case and who earned, for his trouble, the threat of imprisonment. (He narrowly escaped by fleeing to Turkey, where he is waiting for a Norwegian visa -- but not without his wife, Fereshteh Halimi, being imprisoned and thus held hostage.) And it is evident, finally, in the fact that, quite apart from the horror of the act, the scabrous details of which will not be dwelt on here, death by stoning is only possible under Iranian "law" when the family of the victim demands it. (Obviously, in the instance of Sakineh and her family, this is not the case!)

But over and above these considerations we have neither the desire nor, perhaps now, really the time to go in to, it is urgent to intervene in order to prevent an execution observers of the Iranian scene have every reason to believe may be imminent. We must urgently respond to the appeal of Sakineh's children, Fasride and Sajjad Mohammadi Ashtiani, who beg us not to close our eyes on such crude theatrics, not to let their "nightmare become reality".

On Sakineh's behalf, it is urgent to demand that the authorities renounce her execution, in any form, release her without delay, and recognize her innocence. In Iran, every year dozens of woman are condemned to whippings, to stoning, or to other forms of punishment, all of which make one's blood run cold. Beyond the case of Sakineh, it is urgent for the UN to remind the regime of the Mullahs of the promises made, in 2002 and in 2008, regarding the abolition of such types of punishment. A woman's life is at stake.

The freedom and dignity of thousands of others is equally involved.

And ultimately, this is about the honor of a great country, endowed with a culture as magnificent as it is immemorial, and that cannot see itself summed up, in the eyes of the world, in the bloody face, reduced to a pulp, of a woman who has been stoned.

Mercy for Sakineh. Mercy for Iran.