By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
TEHRAN, Jan. 13 -- Two men convicted of adultery in the northeastern city of Mashhad were stoned to death in December, but a third convicted man escaped while the punishment was being carried out, a spokesman for Iran's judiciary said Tuesday.
Ali Reza Jamshidi also said a moratorium on the controversial punishment, announced in 2002 by the head of the judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, was an advisory rather than an edict.
"Judges can't act based simply on advisories by the head of the judiciary, since judges are independent," he said, according to the semiofficial Iranian Students' News Agency.
The European Union, the United Nations and human rights advocates inside and outside Iran have decried stoning, which is enshrined in the country's Islamic legal code as a punishment for homosexuality and adultery. Condemned men are buried in sand up to their waists, and women up to their necks, and are pelted with stones until they die or manage to escape. Under the law, a condemned person's life is spared if he can free himself.
Shahroudi's 2002 comments had suggested Iran was moving away from the practice. Since then, however, five people have been stoned after local judges issued the sentence, human rights groups in Iran say. It is not known how many people were stoned before the moratorium was announced.
Last August, the judiciary said that the lives of four people sentenced to stoning had been spared and that the implementation of other sentences had been halted pending a review of the cases. Ten people, including eight women, are now awaiting stoning, according to human rights activists.
"There was a very clear promise that there would be no more stonings," said Asieh Amini, an independent journalist who specializes in human rights cases. "Today, the spokesperson says that judges can act independently and that punishments were carried out since then. This shows that even the word of the highest judicial authorities don't carry any weight."
Jamshidi, the spokesman, said the judiciary is awaiting passage of a new law in which "some circumstances for the stoning punishment have been foreseen." He did not give a time frame. The bill does not call for the abolition of stoning, he said, but specifies that the punishment not be carried out if it insults the image of Islam.
Amini said the proposed legislation would do nothing to prevent stoning, since it is unclear who would decide whether a particular sentence reflects badly on Islam. "These stoning verdicts are an insult to Islam, anyway," Amini said.
Jamshidi said the December stonings in Mashhad were carried out on two men who had been convicted of having relationships with married women. "The third man managed to escape from the pit," he said, adding that the man had also been convicted of adultery. He gave no further information on the man's fate.
On Monday, Shahroudi personally blocked the stoning of two married women, saying video footage of them having sex with two men other than their husbands was inconclusive, the Ettemaad newspaper, which is critical of the government, reported Tuesday. Iran's Supreme Court had earlier upheld the sentence.
In his weekly news conference, the judicial spokesman also said that Esha Momeni, an Iranian American student at California State University at Northridge who was detained in October, will not be allowed to leave the country for at least another month, saying that "a new issue has turned up in her case." He did not specify the issue.
Momeni was arrested after conducting video interviews with activists for her master's thesis on women's rights. Authorities accused her of "propagating against the system." She was released in November after paying $200,000 bail but was not allowed to leave Iran.