Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Death Row debates

The Death Penalty has always been a bone of contention amongst the pick of the pool of intelligentsia world over. Right from the cases where it should or shouldn't be administered, to the manner in which it can be administered, the entire realm of the death penalty finds itself squarely under the scanner. Ideologically, most states still find themselves in a constant tug-of-war as regards when the death penalty can be handed out, and when it should be withheld as the mode of punishment. Once given, a couple of states find ethical questions staring them in the eye with specific regard to the mode of administration of death. The United States follows the scheme of administering the death penalty by using the lethal injection, that combines Sodium thiopental, which is used to induce unconsciousness; Pancuronium bromide or Pavulon, which causes muscle paralysis and respiratory arrest; and Potassium chloride which stops the heart. The other most controversial form of the death penalty is Lapidation, or stoning, which is commonly practiced in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Iran. Most other countries follow death by hanging. Lapidation, by far, evokes a great deal of debate, notwithstanding the fact that the difficulty or torture one goes through when administered the lethal injection attracts equivocal concern.

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani's case is one of the biggest death-row issues that has caught the world in a frenzy. Sakineh, an Iranian Azeri woman convicted of adultery, has, since 2007, been under a sentence of death under Islamic Sharia law. Recently, however, an international campaign to overturn her sentence began at the behest of her son and daughter, which in turn brought in widespread attention to her cause in 2010. At this juncture, prominent media sources worldover began reporting that she was sentenced to be executed by lapidation, or stoning. In response, the Iranian authorities initially denied that this method of execution would be used. Subsequently, they publicly and temporarily suspended a sentence of death by stoning in September 2010.    

Sakineh was first tried on 15th May, 2006, by a court in Tabriz. She pleaded guilty under torture to the crime of an "illicit relationship" with two men, both of whom, till date, remain unidentified; she has since recanted this "confession", given that it was primarily made under duress. The alleged adultery was supposed to have occurred after her husband's death. At that junctute, Sakineh was sentenced to whipping, with the deliverance of 99 lashes. This sentence was executed, following which a whipping was carried out in the presence of her son, Sajad Ghaderzadeh, who at the relevant time was 17 years old. Subsequently, in September 2006, her case was brought up once again when a different court was prosecuting one of the two men for involvement in the death of Sakineh's husband. She was subjected to an illegal retrial for the same alleged crime of adultery, and in the end of the trial, was convicted of adultery while still married, and sentenced to death by stoning. All rules of natural justice and basic human rights were violated, given that she did not speak Persian, but only Azeri, and when her sentence was handed down, she did not understand the sentence because it was not in a language she could understand.         

Contrary to all available documentation on Sakineh's case, Malek Ejdar Sharifi, the head of East Azerbaijanian Province's judiciary was known to have said that Sakineh was sentenced to capital punishment for committing murder, manslaughter and adultery. Her death sentence was confirmed by the Iranian Supreme Court on May 27, 2007. In response to much flak faced in the light of this issue, The Press Section of the Iranian Embassy in London, which has no judicial authority, issued a statement on July 8, 2010, stating that the mission denied the false news aired in this respect and notified that according to information from the relevant judicial authorities in Iran, she was not to be executed by stoning. WHat followed was yellow journalism at its worst, as world media chose to report the last few words of the relevant text from the statement, conveying the idea that Sakineh's stoning sentence had been lifted. What the press release denied, in reality, was that Sakineh had ever been under stoning sentence. This denial was countered the following day by the Head of the Human Rights Council of the Islamic Republic Judiciary, and has since, been exposed as a falsehood by provision of court documents reflecting the stoning sentence. In reality, the stoning sentence of Sakineh Ashtiani has never been lifted, and as of September 26, 2010, she remains at risk of execution by stoning or other method at any moment.           

The stigmatic treatment does not stop with Sakineh and the death penalty meted out to her. Iran's Reporters have been banned from reporting on the cas, and one of her lawyers, named Mohammed Mostafaei, had to go into hiding in the country on July 26, 2010. His wife and brother-in-law were arrested in Iran and his wife's father was told that they would be released as soon as Mostafaei turned himself in. Mostafaei sought asylum internationally, first in Turkey, and then Norway, where he was eventually reunited with his family on September 2, 2010.

On August 4, 2010, the Iranian authorities told Sakineh's lawyer, Houtan Kian, that Sakineh still faced death by hanging. On the same day, Tehran's High Court rejected a request for the reopening of the trial and instead considered the Tabriz prosecutor's demand to execute Ashtiani. Her case was subsequently transferred to the deputy prosecutor-general Saeed Mortazavi. Sakineh's son, Sajjad Ghaderzadeh, was told that the file on his father's murder case has been lost, which led Sajjad to state that they were lying about the charges against his mother. Sakineh's lawyer Houtan Kian's house was ransacked by plain-clothes officials, and his documents, including the one that shows that Sakineh was acquitted of her husband's murder, were confiscated. Since then, a copy of the sentence has been impossible to find.

On 12th August 2010, Sakineh was televised from Tabriz prison on an Iranian state-run television program which showed her confessing to adultery and involvement in a murder. Her lawyer was known to have said that Sakineh was tortured for two days prior to the interview. On 28th August 2010, Sakineh was informed that she was to be hanged at dawn the next day, which led her to write her will and embraced her cellmates just before the call to morning prayer, when she expected to be led to the gallows, but the sentence was not carried out.

On 2nd September, 2010, Sakineh's son and present lawyer had reported that she had been additionally convicted of "spreading corruption and indecency" for appearing unveiled and was sentenced to another 99 lashes. Subsequently, however, the Times reported that the photograph was not of Sakineh, but of one Susan Hejrat, an Iranian activist living in Sweden. Nevertheless, Sakineh was subjected to another round of 99 lashes, predicated on the mistaken photograph. In a subsequent telecast, Sakineh was again shown on 15th September 2010, where she was seen stating that she had not been tortured and had not been whipped as a result of The Times photograph.    

Sakineh's case has stirred controversy and furore aplenty. Her children have orchestrated an International Campaign to overturn her death sentence, protests have mushroomed world over, human rights organizations have been campaigning on grand scales, and the world political scenario is rife with antagonism towards this trend. Sakineh's death sentence, and if it is true, her treatment, are hardly befitting a person, leave alone a woman, even if she were guilty of adultery. Stoning as a death penalty is barbaric, cruel and absolutely inhuman. When a man is to be stoned to death, he is buried upto the point where his hips give way to his torso, and he is allowed room for escape if he does, by whatever providence, manages to wriggle out. But a woman is buried up to her neck to avoid her breasts from being exposed. This throttles the one chance of escape that a woman may just have possible had. Only time will tell as far as Sakineh's plight is concerned, but a timely intervention to cease such draconian treatment is definitely necessary. Campaigns are but worthless panegyric, until they turn into real action.

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