Mounting pressure on Iran to spare Ashtiani's life

Lawyer and son fear that Sakineh Ashtiani might be stoned to death for adultery after Ramadan ends and have asked the world to intercede.

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Iran is under mounting international pressure to spare the life of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an illiterate widow and mother of two sentenced to death by stoning on an adultery charge that she denies.

Her son has issued desperate warnings that the execution of his "innocent mother" could be imminent. Sajad Ghaderzadeh, 22, fears that her delayed sentence could be carried out soon after Ramadan ends in Iran on Friday - and has beseeched the world to intercede. Paris has been the most vocal world power to respond. Bernard Kouchner, France's foreign minister, has offered to fly to Tehran to plead for the release of Ashtiani, 43, declaring that her case had become a "personal cause". Her 2006 stoning sentence was the "height of barbarity", he said on Monday.

Mr Kouchner's dramatic intercession was echoed yesterday by Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, who said: "We condemn such acts, which have no justification under any moral or religious code ? This is barbaric beyond words." The Vatican, meanwhile, indicated on Sunday that it was prepared to appeal diplomatically to Iran to spare Ashtiani's life. And Italy, which has strong economic relations with Tehran, urged the Iranian authorities to consider "an act of clemency".

The global outcry has stung the Iranian regime, which warned foreign countries yesterday against interfering in its legal system and turning the affair into a human-rights issue. "If releasing all those who have committed murder is to be perceived as a human-rights issue, then all European countries should release all the murderers in their countries," Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Rahim Mehmanpararast, defiantly said at a Tehran news conference.

Asthtiani was acquitted in 2006 of complicity in her husband's murder a year earlier. But smarting from the international backlash, the Iranian authorities recently claimed she was an accomplice in her husband's murder. Her lawyers promptly accused the regime of inventing new charges. In a new twist, Ashtiani's lawyer, Javid Houtan Kian, said on Monday that she received 99 lashes last week as punishment for the mistaken publication by The Times of London of a picture that was said to be of her.

Despite a swift correction by the British daily newspaper, a judge in the city of Tabriz, near the Ashtiani family's hometown of Osku in northern Iran, was said to have ordered the whipping for "spreading corruption and indecency". Ashtiani's alleged new sin? The pictured woman was not wearing a headscarf: under Iran's clerical rule, women must cover their hair in public. Mr Ghazerzadeh, 22, said the photograph was an excuse to punish his mother and that the hardline Iranian government's real purpose was to silence the international campaign to save her.

If so, the new penalty, which has not been confirmed by the Iranian authorities, failed miserably in its aim. Members of the European parliament are today due to vote on a resolution criticising Iran's human-rights record and calling for an end to stoning and the death penalty. Ashtiani has been subjected to several terrifying mock executions, both by stoning and by hanging, Iranian human-rights activists say.

Mr Ghazerzadeh, then just 17, chose to witness his mother's original flogging because he did not want her to suffer the terrifying and humiliating experience alone. Speaking by mobile phone from Tabriz to a press conference in Paris on Monday, he said: "Ramadan is coming to an end and, according to Islamic law executions [which are suspended during the holy month] can resume." He called in particular on Brazil and Turkey, Tehran's allies, to intervene.

"The possibility of stoning still exists, any moment," Mr Ghazerzadeh, said. "Her stoning sentence was only delayed; it has not been lifted yet." He said his mother was cut off from all contact since her televised "confession" on August 11, which he feared could signal an imminent execution. Mr Kian, her lawyer, said he believes she was tortured into confessing on camera. Ashtiani's death sentence was put on hold in July after an international outcry and is now being reviewed by Iran's Supreme Court.

Mr Kian said on Monday that state agents had raided his office and home and removed files and a computer that contained the last evidence of court verdicts that had found Ashtiani innocent of her husband's murder. "They beat up the caretaker of my apartment building so badly that he was taken to hospital," he said. While Ashtiani is a cause célèbre in the West, Iran's state-run media have hardly touched on her case. The few reformist newspapers that have not been shuttered have avoided her plight, aware of its extreme sensitivity.

Outlawed opposition websites, operating through proxy servers have, however, given Ashtiani sympathetic and widespread coverage. A senior Iranian analyst in Tehran, who declined to be named, said: "I don't think they will actually go as far as hanging or stoning Sakineh. That would trigger the worst human-rights related-problem and the regime does not seem to be in a position to risk that now."