Stoning case steals focus from other imprisoned dissidents, Iran activists say

A sentence of death by stoning has propelled an illiterate Iranian woman convicted of adultery to international fame, with Hollywood stars and Western governments calling for her release.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, January 27, 2011; 10:25 PM

TEHRAN - A sentence of death by stoning has propelled an illiterate Iranian woman convicted of adultery to international fame, with Hollywood stars, French intellectuals and Western governments calling for her release.

But inside the Islamic republic, many government critics, activists and artists say the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is diverting attention from the fate of dozens of imprisoned dissidents.

"Our political prisoners are the main issue here," said Leili Rashidi, a well-known Iranian actress who campaigned for President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's challenger in 2009. "I am sad that Mohammadi was given a death verdict, but in the present-day circumstances of my country, Iran, her issue just is not a main priority for me."

Key elements of the case against the 43-year-old Mohammadi, a mother of two, are in dispute. She originally pleaded guilty in May 2006 to having illicit relationships with two men after the death of her husband and received 99 lashes as punishment. Four months later, when a separate court prosecuted one of the two men on charges of killing her husband, she was convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning.

Iranian authorities subsequently said Mohammadi had committed murder. In December, she made her second confession on state-run television, admitting that she had been an accomplice in the electrocution and stabbing to death of her husband and had committed adultery with his cousin. But her attorney said she made the statements under duress after being tortured for two days, and she told London's Guardian newspaper through an intermediary that Iranian officials were lying about the murder charge.

An international outcry

In recent months, amid growing international attention, Iranian authorities have made conflicting statements about her punishment, and many here think it is highly unlikely that the stoning sentence will actually be carried out.

Nearly half a million people have signed a petition on Free Sakineh, a Web site dedicated to her cause. A long list of celebrities, including Gwyneth Paltrow and Michael Douglas, have spoken out about her treatment, and in November, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was "deeply troubled" by the case. The United States and the European Union have both strongly condemned Mohammadi's possible execution and asked for the sentences to be set aside and the case reviewed.

Efforts by activists are now shifting toward also preventing Mohammadi from being hanged for involvement in her husband's killing. Those who have embraced her case say the court proceedings and her harsh sentences illustrate the problems facing women caught up in Iran's judicial system.

"With all respect to my friends who are political prisoners . . . people like me and them have chosen our path knowingly and with information," said Mahnaz Mohammadi, a documentary filmmaker who is not related to Sakineh Mohammadi. "People like Sakineh are victims of their illiteracy, of their disconnection with information, and of the faulty laws in our country."

But for others, the international outcry over Mohammadi's case has become hard to take.

"Why is there so much concentration for a case of a possible murderer, when there are such obvious cases of oppression in Iran?" said Faghrolsadat Mohtashamipour, who has written a series of deeply affectionate open letters to her imprisoned husband, Mustafa Tajzadeh, a prominent critic of the government.

Tajzadeh was among more than 100 politicians, journalists and activists arrested after Ahmadinejad's disputed June 2009 election victory and is among the few who did not publicly admit to committing crimes against the state. His wife has not been able to see him for several months and fears that Tajzadeh - viewed by many as the intellectual force behind the political movement that is pushing for more personal freedom in Iran - has been tortured, a claim that Iranian judicial officials deny.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2011 The Washington Post Company