An Iranian mother on death row saw her two children briefly this week for what all three feared could be the last time. Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, faces an agonising death by stoning for adultery - a charge she denies and for which she has already endured 99 lashes and more than four years' imprisonment.
Her only hope is that a vociferous international campaign will persuade Iran's regime to spare her life. Britain, among other western governments, declared that the planned "medieval"-style execution would "disgust and appal the watching world". Stage and screen stars such as Emma Thompson, Sir David Hare, Juliette Binoche and Colin Firth have signed a campaign for Ashtiani's release. Her children issued a harrowing open letter beseeching the international community to intercede.
"Is the world so cruel that it can watch this catastrophe and do nothing?" demanded Sajad Ghaderzade , 22, and his sister, Farideh, 17. "Please help end this nightmare." Officials told Mr Ghaderzade this week there would be a final decision on his mother's fate on Sunday, said Mina Ahadi, a human rights activist based in Germany. Mr Ghaderzade has written to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Sadeq Larijani, the judiciary chief, imploring them to exercise clemency because his mother "is 100 per cent innocent".
With daring born of desperation, Mr Ghaderzade on Wednesday issued a new letter through Ms Ahadi - which she passed on to The National. In it, he challenged Ayatollah Larijani: "I? say to you, the head of the judiciary who tells television networks day in, day out, that justice must prevail and officials guilty of misconduct must be punished, that there is no justice in this country." Iran, per capita, is the world's most prolific executioner. But stonings are very rare. Hanging is the penalty for murder and most other capital crimes.
Under Iran's penal code, adultery is a "crime against God" for both sexes. It is punishable by 100 lashes for those who are unmarried but married offenders can be sentenced to death by stoning. Iranian rights activists insist the draconian penalty is not prescribed in the Quran. If no reprieve comes, Ashtiani will be swaddled from head-to-toe in a white shroud, buried up to the armpits and stoned to death at dawn in the yard of a prison in Tabriz. Some stoning victims have taken 20 to 30 minutes to die.
Men are buried to the waist, while women are buried deeper, so stones do not hit their breasts. This apparent regard for a woman's modesty, however, serves as a drawback. Those who wriggle free are spared. It is easier for a man to do so. Ashtiani was arrested in 2005 and convicted of having an "illicit relationship" with two men following the death of her reportedly abusive husband. She apparently confessed to the charge, which falls short of the more serious accusation of adultery, and was freed after receiving 99 lashes.
Mr Ghaderzade, then 17, chose to witness the flogging: he did not want his mother to endure the punishment alone. Four months later Ashtiani was hauled before another court during the murder trial of one of her alleged lovers, who was accused of killing her husband. The court accepted she had no role in that crime. But she was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery on the basis of her earlier pre-trial "confession", which she had retracted, insisting that it was made under duress. Her husband's alleged killer was reportedly jailed for 10 years.
Under Iran's Islamic legal code, a person can be convicted of adultery only by a repeated confession or the testimony of "just" witnesses to the sexual act: either four men or three men and two women. There were no witnesses in Ashtiani's case. The court used a legal loophole allowing for a subjective ruling based on a "judge's knowledge" in the absence of concrete evidence. Three of the five judges determined Ashtiani was guilty.
"This is an absolutely illegal sentence," Ashtiani's lawyer, Mohammed Mostafaei, declared in a public letter after her conviction, which was upheld by Iran's supreme court. Mr Mostafaei believes a language barrier prevented Ashtiani from fully understanding the proceedings: she is of Azerbaijani descent and speaks Turkish, not Farsi. In 2002, the then head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, issued a moratorium on stoning.
But the practice, albeit rare, continued. Amnesty International (AI) has recorded at least six stoning deaths since 2006. At least 11 others currently face the same penalty, eight of them women, the organisation said. Women suffer disproportionately. Most stoning victims are illiterate, poor, married to abusive husbands and convicted without proper legal representation, human rights groups say. There is hope for Ashtiani. AI said at least 15 Iranians have been saved from stoning since 2006, "largely by the efforts of human rights activists and lawyers", supported by organisations such Amnesty International.