IN his first State of the Union address to the European parliament, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso yesterday spoke for the great, great majority of Europeans when he described the sentence imposed on an Iranian woman convicted of adultery as “barbaric beyond words”.
The sentence to stone Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old widow, to death because she was convicted of having sex with two men after her husband’s death is under review because of sustained international pressure, but it is not at all certain that the woman will not be executed by another means.
She, despite protesting her innocence, has spent more than five years in prison and been subjected to 99 lashes that were administered as her 17-year-old son was forced to look on.
Irrespective of the crime, the act of stoning anyone to death seems to be little more than state-sanctioned savagery designed to torture the victim to death and send a clear and threatening message to anyone who might decide to live outside the mores of that mediaeval society.
The Iranian penal code, the Law of Hodoud, is explicit in how the savagery is to be administered.
Because she is a woman, Ashtiani would be buried up to her breasts. A man is buried just to his waistline, giving him a chance to dig himself out, thereby earning a fortuitous if gender-biased reprieve.
Even the size of the stones is prescribed. Article 104 of the Law of Hodoud decrees that the stones should “not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes; nor should they be so small that they could not be defined as stones”. The objective is plain enough – an execution preceded by physical and psychological torture to a depth that will suppress all but the most courageous opposition.
Tehran’s response has been sadly predictable. A government spokesman said the furore was based on false information and that Iran should be left to control its own affairs. By looking after its own affairs, Iran means keeping another 12 women and three men in jail while they await death by stoning.
All the women and one man face that grim prospect because they were condemned for adultery. These are not the only state-administered executions in Iran. According to Amnesty International, Iran is only second to China in the number of people it executes. It put to death at least 346 people in 2008.
Murder, adultery, rape, armed robbery, apostasy and drug trafficking are all punishable by death under Iran’s sharia law, which is in place since the 1979 Islamic Revolution
Though a country where gardaí in riot gear are needed to control psychiatric patients in under-staffed hospital wards should be slow to criticise another’s human rights record, Iran cannot be expected to be regarded as anything other than barbaric if these sentences are imposed.
And, in an entirely different context, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani’s terrible plight brings a perspective about the wearing of burkas, hijabs and any other religious dress code exclusively applicable to women in a discomfiting light.
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