UPDATE: Iran: Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani case: another test of Iran's flawed justice system

The Violence is Not our Culture Campaign (VNC) and Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) are deeply concerned over the continued denial of human rights in Iran in light of the Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani case. Lack of due process and the right to a fair trial, arbitrary detention, torture, and restrictions of freedom of information, of the press, and of association sadly constitute the status quo in the Islamic Republic.

The facts surrounding Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani’s continued detention under a sentence of death by stoning, plus the subsequent imprisonment of her son Sajjad Qaderzadeh and lawyer Javid Houtan Kiyan, who were arrested on 10th October 2010 along with two German journalists, illuminate the deep flaws in the administration of justice in Iran.

On 15 May 2006, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani was convicted of having an “illicit relationship” with two men and was sentenced to 99 lashes by Branch 101 of the Criminal Court of Osku, in East Azerbaijan Province. Then, in a September 2006 trial of a man accused of murdering her husband, Mohammadi Ashtiani was once again accused of committing “fornication while married.” During this trial, she retracted the “confession” she supposedly made during pre-trial interrogation, alleging that she had confessed under duress, and declared her innocence. 

The Iranian Constitution forbids the use of coerced confession, stating that: 

“All forms of torture for the purpose of extracting confession or acquiring information are forbidden. Compulsion of individuals to testify, confess, or take an oath is not permissible; and any testimony, confession, or oath obtained under duress is devoid of value and credence”. 

Two of the five judges found Mohammadi Ashtiani not guilty, pointing to the lack of evidentiary proof in the case against her, and noting that she had already suffered 99 lashes due to her previous sentencing. Even though double jeopardy is illegal in Iran, the other three judges, including the presiding judge, found Mohammadi Ashtiani guilty on the basis of the “judge’s knowledge” or “gut-feeling” (elm-e ghazi), a provision in Iranian law that allows judges to make their own subjective and arbitrary rulings even in the absence of clear or conclusive evidence. Mohammadi Ashtiani was sentenced to death by stoning on 10 September 2006. 

The International Committee Against Stoning, based in Germany, posted a press release on 1 November 2010 indicating that Mohammadi Ashtiani was due to be executed within days. In this report, the adultery charge against her had allegedly been dropped, and thus she was no longer to be stoned to death, but instead hanged for the charge of murder. This story quickly spread across the cyberworld and international media, leading to bilateral interventions from various governments appealing on behalf of Mohammadi Ashtiani. WLUML and VNC did not join the global action on this particular instance as we have not been able to confirm the order of Mohammadi Ashtiani’s imminent execution. We remain firm that our concerns on her case which we have communicated to the Iranian authorities (see http://www.stop-killing.org/en/node/1147)and reiterated below remain outstanding.   

Our Concerns 

Iran’s imposed media blackout around this case has resulted in great difficulties for those working both inside and outside the Islamic Republic to source credible and accurate information and updates. The government of Iran should ensure transparency around this case, which has become a matter of public and international concern, and should lift the restrictions on the media in Iran reporting on this case.

Furthermore, the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran should ensure that best practices of due process and the rights to a fair trial are protected in all cases, and especially those punishable by the death penalty. As a state party to the ICCPR, Iran has made an explicit and unreserved commitment under article 6(2) that if the death sentence is imposed it is to be “only for the most serious crimes.” Under international law, consensual sexual acts such as those criminalized by Iranian law under the provisions of adultery do not amount to the “most serious crimes” for which the death penalty may be imposed as an “exceptional measure.” In 2008, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions. Iran was among the minority of states that voted against the resolution.

In light of the mishandling of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani’s case file, which has apparently disappeared, and the conflicting reports surrounding her status, the courts should clearly explicate both the sentence and the process leading to the final judgement. According to Section 11 Article 166 of the constitution of Iran, “the verdicts of courts must be well reasoned out and documented with reference to the articles and principles of the law in accordance with which they are delivered.” 

According to Amnesty International, the Iranian State Prosecutor, in his role as spokesperson for the judiciary, confirmed on 1 November 2010 that Mohammadi Ashtiani’s lawyer, Javid Houtan Kiyan, had been arrested on October 10 and that he was still under investigation for links to “anti-revolutionary groups abroad”.  He also said that Kiyan had been found in possession of three forged or duplicate ID cards. The courts should ensure that the confusion surrounding the case of Mohammadi Ashtiani is not replicated in that of Javid Houtan Kiyan. 

The Iranian authorities had not confirmed either the arrest or the whereabouts of Sajjad Ghaderzadeh, but it is more than likely that he too is being detained. VNC and WLUML believe it likely that Kiyan and Ghaderzadeh are being held as a result of their campaigning on the Mohammadi Ashtiani case, and should thus be released.

The government of the Islamic Republic of Iran should provide information on the whereabouts of Mohammadi Ashtiani’s son Sajjad Ghaderzadeh. If he is being detained, the government should make the charges being brought against him known, and ensure he has access to a lawyer of his choice. Article 14 of the ICCPR states that in the determination of any criminal charge against him, everyone shall be entitled to the following minimum guarantees, in full equality: 

(a) To be informed promptly and in detail in a language which he understands of the nature and cause of the charge against him; 

(b) To have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defense and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing; and 

(c) To be tried without undue delay.