Middle East

In Iran, adulterers spared stoning
By N Janardhan

DUBAI - The Iranian judiciary's decision to suspend the punishment of death by stoning for adultery is being hailed as a victory for reformists, but the victory is not yet complete.

The decision, made in response to the "demands of modern age" and mounting protests inside and outside the country, was done by means of official instructions of the judiciary, apparently taking its cue from the government.

But the Iranian majlis, or parliament, has not yet abolished the punishment by changing the penal code, and an eventual decision by parliament and the Iranian government is being closely watched by many.

The reformists, who control the parliament under the leadership of President Mohammad Khatami, have been pushing a change in the execution law. Accordingly, 11 women members of parliament submitted a bill in early December to the 290-seat legislature to abolish the practice of death by stoning to punish adultery.

According to Naseeb Al Saleh, professor of political science at Ajman University in the United Arab Emirates, "The move to halt the practice is a victory for reformist MPs who have been looking to end discrimination against women."

The move comes after pressure from the European Union, which is engaged in human rights talks linked to trade negotiations. EU-Iran negotiations, which began in December, are the most serious Western attempt to engage Iran since 1979, but the EU has been insisting that Iran take steps to improve its human rights record.

But member of parliament Jamileh Kadivar denied that the suspension of death by stoning was related to talks with the EU, saying, "The head of the judiciary has sent a ruling to judges telling them not to order execution by stoning." The judges had been told to issue alternative punishments and the decision would be upheld pending a permanent change in the law, she added.

It is unclear if judges are still allowed to order other forms of execution such as hanging, which is frequently carried out in public for crimes such as murder, armed robbery and rape. The EU has been demanding that Iran end public executions as well.

"Stoning has been provisionally suspended due to its negative effects, but this suspension is provisional," said Hojatoleslam Mohsen Gharavian, a conservative cleric based in the theological base of Qom, according to the state news agency IRNA. Still, this top conservative cleric acknowledged that the practice had been widely criticized and had hurt the Islamic republic's image abroad.

In line with the country's political system, he said, it is now up to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to take a final decision on whether the punishment used against adultery should be completely stopped. "If it is in the interests of Muslims and Islam, it can be suspended for a determined period by the supreme guide," he was quoted as saying.

In Iran's political system, Khamenei is the final authority on all matters and his endorsement of all laws passed by the parliament, including one against stoning, would give it the final stamp of legality before it is implemented.

Under Iran's strict Islamic law, in place since the 1979 Islamic revolution, men and women convicted of adultery are normally sentenced to death by stoning. Men are buried up to their waists in a pit and women up to their shoulders. Onlookers are then invited to pelt them with stones until death. According to the law, the stones must be big enough to injure but not kill with just a few blows, which Amnesty International has described as a "method specifically designed to increase the victim's suffering". The victim is acquitted if he or she manages to get out of the pit.

The Shariah (Islamic law) ruling on adultery was incorporated in the 1995 Islamic Penal Code of Iran. Iranian officials refuse to reveal how often stonings are carried out. But an Amnesty International 2002 report said at least 139 people, including one minor, were executed in Iran in 2001, at least two by stoning and one by beheading. EU diplomats say there was at least one unconfirmed case in 2002, in which an accused woman survived by escaping from the pit.

The law is particularly harsh on women. In accordance with Shariah law, an act of adultery witnessed by at least four people is punishable by stoning to death. But women do not have the same right when dealing with unfaithful husbands. Unofficial figures put at about 70 the number of women accused of adultery who have been stoned to death so far.

These figures place Iran second on the list of execution capitals of the world, although it remains far behind China. It is also only one of the seven countries, including the US, that allows the execution of people under 18.

But phasing out death by stoning is unlikely to be easy.

"The fact that two prominent clerics - Grand Ayatollah Makarem Shirazi and Ayatollah Musavi Tabrizi - have spoken out against stoning could facilitate the passage of the anti-stoning legislation," said Al Saleh, the professor at Ajman University. "But the Guardians Council has always adopted a confrontationalist attitude toward the reformists."

Indeed, Ayatollah Gholamreza Rezvani, a member of the Guardians Council, said that there is no substitute for the stoning of adulterers. According to the Farsi daily Hayat-i No, Rezvani said that Islamic rulings do not depend on societal tastes. "Stoning is a sanction for ethical problems such as adultery and there is no other sanction for having intercourse with a married person." But Mohammed Reza Khatami, deputy head of parliament and brother of Iran's president, told the Women in Iran magazine that the Koran allows for stoning to be replaced by other forms of punishment.

(Inter Press Service)
Jan 14, 2003

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