Video: Thousands demand of Iran: Stop the stoning

  1. Transcript of: Thousands demand of Iran: Stop the stoning

    BRIAN WILLIAMS, anchor: is tough to watch. It's about a tough subject that is not for any children who may be in the room. It's about an international outcry tonight over an ancient and brutal form of punishment,

    one you might think had vanished from the modern world: a woman in Iran convicted of adultery scheduled to be stoned to death. And her own son is risking his life to save hers. It's a story that's captured attention around the world. Our report tonight from NBC 's Dawna Friesen .

    DAWNA FRIESEN reporting: Her name is Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani , a 43-year-old mother of two sentenced in Iran to be stoned to death. In online campaigns and petitions, thousands are demanding Iran stop the stoning. These pictures are from 1994 , two people shrouded, partially buried in holes, surrounded by men armed with stones, their final moments too gruesome to air.

    Ms. NADIYE KHALIFE (Human Rights Watch): Ashtiani is in critical danger. She has exhausted all of her appeals.

    FRIESEN: She's already served five years in prison and suffered 99 lashes after being convicted of adultery, a crime she's always denied.

    Ms. KHALIFE: There is no hard evidence in this -- in this case to claim that she did actually did commit the crime of adultery.

    FRIESEN: Human rights campaigners are organizing protests. Western governments have voiced their outrage.

    Mr. MARK TONER (State Department Acting Deputy Spokesman): Stoning as a means of execution is tantamount to torture. It's barbaric and an abhorrent act.

    FRIESEN: And from inside Iran , Ashtiani 's son risked his own life, releasing a letter to human rights campaigners. "My mother and I are asking the people of the world to help us," he writes. "There is no justice in this country." Stoning in Iran is less common than it once was. Amnesty International knows of just six cases since 2006 . When it does happen, men are buried up to their waists, women up to their breasts. If they manage to struggle free, the death sentence is commuted, but women , buried more deeply, rarely do.

    Mr. BAHRAM SOROUSH (Iranian Human Rights Campaigner): I think it is being used as a weapon to terrorize the population, to intimidate them, to -- specifically to put women in their places.

    FRIESEN: Tonight it appears Iran may have bowed to pressure. In a statement, the embassy in London said, "She will not be executed by stoning punishment." Human rights groups are cautiously optimistic. Will she now be freed, or executed by other means? And how many other women in Iran face the same fate before the barbarous act of stoning is finally outlawed? Dawna Friesen, NBC News, London.

msnbc.com
updated 7/8/2010 2:34:13 PM ET 2010-07-08T18:34:13

The Iranian Embassy in London on Thursday denied reports by media and human rights groups that a convicted adulterer would face death by stoning for her crime.

The execution of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, who has already spent five years in prison and received 99 lashes for alleged adultery, would "disgust and appall the watching world," the British Government declared, according to a report Thursday in U.K. newspaper The Times.

Later Thursday, the Iranian Embassy took issue with those comments, releasing its own  statement that "according to information from the relevant judicial authorities in Iran, she will not be executed by stoning punishment." It was uncertain if Ashtiani would face death by another means.

"It is notable that this kind of punishment has rarely been implemented in Iran and various means and remedies must be probed and exhausted to finally come up with such a punishment," the statement said.

The Iranian government has been under growing international pressure to revisit the case of Ashtiani.

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Celebrities signing up to campaign for Ashtiani's release include Sir David Hare, the playwright, actress Emma Thompson, actress Juliette Binoche, fashion designer Katherine Hamnett and actor Colin Firth, The Times said.

Even American jail-bound actress Lindsay Lohan got in on the act. On Twitter, she posted a series of messages about the "cruel and inhuman" punishment and linked to a Wednesday Newsweek story about Ashtiani.

The Newsweek story said Ashtiani could be buried up to her breasts and stoned to death as early as this coming weekend.

She is being held in a local jail in the northern Iran town of Tabriz, the U.K.'s Daily Express reported.

In May 2006, a criminal court in East Azerbaijan province found Ashtiani guilty of having had an "illicit relationship" with two men following the death of her husband.

But that September, during the trial of a man accused of murdering her husband, another court reopened an adultery case based on events that allegedly took place before her husband died, the BBC reported.

Despite retracting a confession she said she had been forced to make under duress, Ashtiani was convicted of "adultery while being married" and sentenced to death by stoning.

Ashtiani, a mother of two, denies the charges. She has been in prison since 2006 and has already been given 99 lashes. She has lost appeals for clemency.

Under Iran's Islamic laws, adultery is the only capital offense punishable by stoning. A man is usually buried up to his waist, while a woman is buried up to her neck. Those carrying out the verdict then pelt the convict with stones until he or she dies.

Image: Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani
Amnesty International via AP
Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a mother of two, who is facing the punishment of stoning to death in Iran, on charges of adultery.

Stoning was widely imposed in the years following the revolution, and even though Iran's judiciary still regularly hands down such sentences, they are often converted to fines. The last known stoning was carried out in 2008, although the government rarely confirms that such punishments have been meted out.

"It's possible that the numbers are much higher than has been reported," said Faraz Sanei, an Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch.

'Nightmare'
Ashtiani's son Sajad, 22, and daughter Farideh, 17, told the London-based Guardian newspaper last week that their mother has been unjustly accused and already punished for something she did not do.

"She's innocent, she's been there for five years for doing nothing," Sajad told the Guardian. He described the imminent execution as barbaric. "Imagining her, bound inside a deep hole in the ground, stoned to death, has been a nightmare for me and my sister for all these years."

On Friday, protesters gathered outside the Iranian embassy in London to demand Ashtiani's release, the Guardian said. 

Five years ago when Sakineh was flogged, Sajad was 17 and present in the punishment room, he told the Guardian. "They lashed her just in front my eyes, this has been carved in my mind since then."

Sajad and Farideh Ashtiani wrote a letter on June 26 asking the public, "Please help our mother return home!"

Mohammed Mostafaei, an Iranian lawyer who volunteered to represent Ashtiani when her sentence was announced a few months ago, called the planned stoning "an absolutely illegal sentence."

"Two of five judges who investigated Sakineh's case in Tabriz prison concluded that there's no forensic evidence of adultery," Mostafaei told the Guardian. "According to the law, death sentence and especially stoning needs explicit evidences and witnesses while in her case, surprisingly, the judge's knowledge was considered as enough," he said.

European Union Foreign Affairs chief Catherine Ashton told Iran in a letter that she was "deeply concerned" about Ashtiani and other pending executions, the Express reported.

Calling death by stoning "a particularly cruel method of execution which amounts to torture," Ashton said, "I call on Iran to halt these executions."

Amnesty International has contacted the Iranian government directly to appeal for clemency, the Express reported. The organization also offers support for Ashtiani on its website.

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