In Iran, a return to harsher penalties

Two stonings since May and a spate of floggings are part of a judiciary backlash at the president's reforms.

Maryam Ayoubi, an Iranian woman in her early 30s, was ritually washed, wrapped in a white shroud, and carried on a stretcher to an open space in Tehran's Evin prison.

She was then was buried up to the armpits and stoned to death in the presence of prison and judicial officials at dawn earlier this month, according to local press reports.

Mrs. Ayoubi had been convicted of murdering her husband and adultery. Her lover, who is not married, was sentenced to hang for his role in the killing.

It is the adultery charge that carries the stoning penalty - for women - and Ayoubi was the second woman put to death this way in Iran in two months.

Before that, no woman had been executed by stoning since 1997, when President Mohamad Khatami first came to power. It is rumored on the diplomatic circuit in Tehran that the reform-minded leader had approached the judiciary and asked for the practice to be stopped.

A third woman, identified only as Robabeh, is reported to be awaiting execution by stoning.

The judiciary has refused to confirm the report and has not commented on the executions.

The cases have stirred widespread international concern, raising fears that conservative judges have revived stoning after a lull of several years.

Amnesty International, the London-based human rights group, denounced the practice in a statement, saying: "Executions by stoning aggravate the death penalty.... It is a method specifically designed to increase the victim's suffering."

Iranian law regulates the size of the stones: They must be neither too big nor too small, so that death is neither mercifully quick nor endlessly prolonged.

Analysts in Tehran suggest two possible reasons why stoning is back on the agenda. Some believe the executions are part of Iran's prolonged power struggle, with hard-liners using their control of the judiciary to embarrass the popular President Khatami and to undermine his initiative to promote a "dialogue of civilizations," which has been backed by the United Nations.

Khatami, who is struggling to liberalize Iran's Islamic system, is a supporter of women's rights and of judicial reform.

"They [hard-liners] also know the president has been working hard to improve Iran's image abroad and cases like this are designed to tarnish it in the West," says one businessman in Tehran, who declined to be identified.

Western diplomats in Tehran had lodged strong objections with the Iranian authorities before Ayoubi's execution, and Amnesty International, which described her death as "an outrage," made worldwide appeals for her sentence to be commuted.

The timing of the other stoning, in May, just a month before presidential elections, first raised suspicions that right-wing elements in the judiciary were attempting to use this form of execution to undermine Khatami, a middle-ranking cleric. He won anyway.

The woman, who was not identified, had been on death row for eight years. She had been convicted of "corruption on earth" and adultery for participating in a pornographic film.

The second theory behind the stonings is that conservative judges are reviving the strictest punishments allowed under sharia (Islamic law) to combat what they see as an increase in immorality. More generally, hard-liners have stepped up their campaign against liberal influences, which they blame on reforms carried out by Khatami.

Public floggings, which had become rare, also have risen recently, with six reported in the past month. In Tehran on Tuesday, 22 men convicted of offenses - including alcohol consumption harassing women - received 70 to 80 lashes each, at two separate whippings.

Iran's pro-reform interior minister, Abdulvahed Moussavi Lari, has condemned public floggings for young people drinking alcohol - which only non-Muslims are allowed to make or consume in Iran.

Mr. Lari, a close ally of Khatami, said public whippings in this day and age have serious political and social consequences. He also complained that as the main official responsible for security, he was not kept informed about such harsh decisions.

Analysts suspect that the hard-line judiciary is using the draconian punishments in part to undermine Khatami's popularity among the young, his main power base. "There is a political angle to it. But there is also a feeling in some clerical circles that moral corruption has to be countered by rigid punishment," says a Western diplomat in Tehran.

Even before 1997, stonings were rare in Iran, although hanging is a common punishment for serious offenses, such as drug-smuggling and murder.

Men who are stoned to death are buried to the waist, while women are buried deeper, to stop the stones from hitting their breasts. This apparent regard actually has a negative impact for women: If a prisoner manages to pull free during a stoning, he or she can be acquitted or jailed for as long as 15 years, but is not executed.

Human rights activists say Iran's sentencing practices put women at particular risk for this form of punishment. A spokesman for Amnesty International in London says: "While the death penalty is never less than cruel and unnecessary, it does seem that 'moral offenses' are penalized along patriarchal lines in Iran, with women suffering an excruciating death by stoning and - as in recent reported cases - men sentenced to be dispatched relatively quickly by hanging."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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