Iran changes Ashtiani stoning sentence for adultery to hanging

International outrage seems to have spurred Iran to change the Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani stoning sentence to death by hanging. This week, Iran aired what it said was a videotaped confession by Ashtiani.

Amnesty International/AP
This undated image made available by Amnesty International in London, July 8, shows Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a mother of two who is facing the punishment of stoning to death in Iran, on charges of adultery. International outrage has spurred Iran to change Ms. Ashtiani's stoning sentence to death by hanging.

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In a move apparently designed to deflect growing international criticism, Iran’s government appears to be quietly moving away from death by stoning.

This week, Iran quickly commuted the sentence of a 25-year-old woman convicted of adultery, saying she will be hung instead of stoned to death, reports the Guardian. The change comes after Iran also recently commuted a death by stoning sentence in the high-profile case of a 43-year-old mother of two convicted of adultery.

The commuted sentences are unlikely to dampen a continuing uproar by human rights groups that accuse Iran of expanding its use of capital punishment. But they do suggest that an international campaign to oppose Iran’s practice of stoning may be making gains.

The uproar over Iran’s use of stoning has crystallized around the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. The Iranian government initially charged her with adultery, a crime punishable in Iran by death by stoning. But then a concerted global effort to highlight her case emerged. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently weighed in on the issue, as The Christian Science Monitor reported. Brazil has also offered asylum to Ms. Ashtiani.

Iran appears to be listening. In a bizarre twist to the tale, the Islamic Republic at first commuted Ashtiani’s sentence. And then on Wednesday it released what it said was a videotaped confession of Ashtiani admitting to murder. Actually, though, Ashtiani never admits to murder in the interview, and the purpose of the tape seems to have been a rare instance of the regime trying to justify itself by suggesting that Ashtiani’s crime was greater than adultery alone. The release of the tape was followed Thursday with Ashtiani's lawyer telling the Associated Press she was tortured into confession.

Iran doesn’t usually feel the need to defend its practices. But as The New York Times noted, the reactions have “suggested that the international uproar had put Iranian officials on the defensive, and left them struggling to defend their case for both domestic and international audience.”

As the BBC points out, the regime cares more about its image than it lets on:

Despite the daily gestures of defiance, the Islamic Republic is deeply sensitive to the way it is seen by the outside world. A nightly program on state TV analyses and criticizes foreign media reports.

The Iranian authorities like to portray an image of a country and a system misperceived and misrepresented in the West.

If Iran is responding to outside pressure by commuting the sentence, it would be a rare instance. As the Monitor recently reported, outside pressure, at least in the case of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, does not seem to be working.

The concessions Iran is willing to make appear extremely limited in this case. At least 12 women and three men await execution by stoning in Iran, according to the Guardian. Iran’s rate of executions is second only to China: “Last month the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation, which monitors the Iranian media for death-penalty cases, reported that 135 executions were known to have been carried in Iran so far this year.”

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