By Narcis Zohrehnassab
In July 2010, an Iranian woman, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, faced being stoned to death after being found guilty of adultery. However, the Iranian authorities decided against stoning, although she may still face the death penalty.
In Iran, adultery, apostasy - conversion from Islam - and homosexuality are considered capital crimes and carry the death penalty by stoning, hanging or firing squad.
Execution by firing squad is particularly common in the military and in times of war. Nowadays many political prisoners are killed this way.
Hanging has been a method of capital punishment in many countries but Iran has hanged more juvenile offenders than any other country — eight last year and 42 since 1990, according to Amnesty International.
Stoning to death was introduced as a legal form of punishment for the "adultery of married persons" (zina al-mohsena) in Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria (in about one-third of its 36 states), Pakistan, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates. However, some of these countries have since repealed the law.
A number of different traditions - including, historically, Jewish and Greek - have a long history of stoning, but in practice, it has since grown to be associated with Islam and Muslim cultures.
So far, in the Iranian judicial system, Islam is the main source of guidance and legitimacy for public policies. Article four of Iran's constitution requires that all laws and regulations must be accord with Islam and Islamic law or Sharia.
Stoning is a highly debated issue among Muslim religious clerics, and there is no consensus within the global Muslim community over the validity of the practice as “Islamic Law.” Although there is no mention of stoning in the Quran, many Muslim clerics cite instances in the Hadith - the acts and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad - when discussing the legitimacy of the practice of stoning in Islam.
The Quran (Surah al-Nur 24:2-9) only stipulates 100 lashes for adultery; the Prophet Muhammad reportedly had a number of men and women stoned in his time, which is taken as evidence for those who argue for codifying this punishment as Shariah, or Islamic Law.
In January 2002, the former Head of the Judiciary of Iran ordered an end to public executions in most cases and in August judicial officials said that executions by stoning had been suspended, although at least 10 people sentenced to die by stoning were still on death row at the end of that year and two men were stoned to death in December 2002.
“Stoning is a definitive and applicable verdict for adultery,” said Malek Ajdar Sharifi, head of judiciary of East Azerbaijan province of Iran.
Many Muslim clerics, religious scholars, and political leaders have spoken out against the practice of stoning, deeming it “un-Islamic.” Some Muslim clerics such as Ayatollah Hussein Mousavi Tabrizi argued that stoning should be stopped as a response to the demands of modern age. Others argue that any punishment, including stoning, that defames, embarrasses or depicts a bad picture of Islam is harmful to the religion and should be discontinued.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, in her discussion of the practice, points out that many religious leaders see stoning as an “endorsement” law rather than a “constitutional law” and can therefore be changed or repealed; and that many other Muslim countries including Malaysia, Indonesia, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria do not condone stoning.
Despite all arguments, international campaigns and committees against the death penalties, Iranian people are not very optimistic about any change in the situation. “Stoning is sadly part of Iranian law, although it is uncommon,” says Fahime A., a 39-year-old divorced woman. “In my experience, sex outside of marriage is quite volatile. Many problems could result from an illicit relationship. Traditional society cannot stand anyone who is going against taboos, against traditional Islamic perceptions and what they’re honored for. If for any reason a woman agrees to take on these problems, sooner or later she is likely to face an unfair punishment such as stoning.”
Reformist politicians have made attempts in the past to challenge the death penalty, as well as to enforce the rule of law concerning the illegal use of torture in prisons. Journalists and human rights advocates in Iran who attempt to raise awareness of these issues often risk imprisonment and the death sentence themselves.
Mehrangiz Kar is a prominent Iranian lawyer and human right activist who was exiled by the Iranian regime and now lives in the United States. “Laws cannot be incongruent with religious doctrine,” she says. “Therefore in Iran the legislative entities do not have the freedom to easily change or remove laws that are in harmony with religious principles.”