Conservative paper challenges stoning

A CONSERVATIVE newspaper in Iran has challenged the sentence of death by stoning passed on Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani.

It was the first public sign that her case is causing divisions within the regime.

The article in Alef, headlined “The gap between the legal procedures and sharia”, says that the judge who sentenced Ms Ashtiani for her alleged adultery had an inadequate knowledge of sharia law, with its provisions for forgiveness and its requirement of four witnesses.

It also criticised the authorities for allowing the case to become such a big issue in the West.

“The story of [Ashtiani] was blown up by the Americans, the British and the Zionists. But what did we do? Nothing!” the author, Hojatoleslam Jalil Mohebby, a mid-ranking cleric, said.

Mohammed Mostafaei, Ms Ashtiani’s exiled lawyer, told The Times: “This is the first public display of differences over Sakineh’s case and those differences are being aggravated by [the regime’s] delay in dealing with the case.”

Alef is controlled by Ahmad Tavakkoli, a former minister who is a cousin of Ali Larijani, the Parliament’s Speaker, and Sadegh Larijani, the head of the judiciary. It supports Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the supreme leader, but has been critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Until now Ms Ashtiani’s sentence has scarcely been mentioned in Iran’s state-controlled media.

Further condemnation of Ms Ashtiani’s sentence came from Mehdi Karroubi, a candidate in last year’s hotly disputed presidential election. He told The Times: “I strongly oppose such sentences and I believe by issuing them we are making ourselves and Islam more isolated. It shows Islam as a brutal religion, whereas the basis of Islam is kindness, compassion and mercy.”

Hassan Ghashghavi, the Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister, has meanwhile said that Tehran is prepared to execute people by the thousand to preserve Islamic law. Speaking to students at Ferdowsi University, in Mashhad, Mr Ghashghavi was asked about the recent reports of mass secret executions at Vakilabad prison, in northeastern Iran, highlighted by The Times. “We live in an Islamic country and we act according to the Koran’s sentences,” Mr Ghashghavi said. “Even if 100,000 must be executed, we will carry out the Koran’s sentences.”

More than 100 people have been executed at Vakilabad in the past six months and human rights groups believe that as many as 500 may have been killed at the prison over the past 18 months.

Asked about Ms Ashtiani’s case, Mr Ghashghavi denied that any stoning sentences had been carried out in Iran since 2005 – a claim contested by Amnesty International, which has identified at least three such executions since 2008.

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