Iranian official hints that Ashtiani could escape stoning

A SENIOR Iranian official has raised the possibility that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani could be spared execution by stoning for alleged adultery.

Asked yesterday if the sentence could be commuted, Malek Ajdar Sharifi, head of the judiciary in the province of East Azerbaijan where Ms Ashtiani is imprisoned, told the state news agency Fars that there were “ambiguities” in her case and added: “Anything is possible.”

Mr Sharifi said it was easy to issue a verdict when the murderer makes a clear confession. “But in this case, where the defendant denies or makes justifications and there are ambiguities in the evidence, the procedure gets prolonged,” he said.

His comments came a day after choreographed appearances by Ms Ashtiani and her son, Sajad Ghaderzade, that seemed designed to underline her guilt and counter Western criticism of her case. Ms Ashtiani’s supporters insisted that the appearances were coerced.

Reporters for international news agencies met Mr Ghaderzade, 22, at a government guesthouse in the northwestern city of Tabriz. Mr Ghaderzade, who was arrested in October while he and his mother’s lawyer, Javid Houtan Kian, were giving an interview to two German journalists, claimed that he had been freed on bail three weeks ago. “I do not think that my mother is innocent. She is certainly guilty,” he said, although he appealed for clemency.

Before his arrest Mr Ghaderzade had given numerous interviews to Western media organisations, including The Times, in which he pleaded his mother’s case. He now claimed that he had whipped up the controversy to win her freedom, “but it did not happen”.

He accused Mr Kian, Mohammed Mostafaei, another lawyer who publicised the case in the West, and the German journalists, who have been jailed in Iran since October, of making his mother’s plight much worse.

The reporters later met Ms Ashtiani, 43, in the same location and were shown footage of her having dinner with her son and daughter. She insisted that the “confessions” of complicity in her husband’s murder that she made in previous appearances on state television were entirely voluntary and she denied that she had been tortured. “No one has forced me,” she insisted.

She added that she had told her son to sue Mr Mostafaei, the German journalists and others who had duped him and exploited her case to embarrass the Islamic Republic. “I have told Sajad to sue the ones who have disgraced me and the country,” she said, telling reporters: “Leave my case alone.”

The reporters were not allowed to question Ms Ashtiani or her son. Neither was accompanied by a lawyer; Mr Kian is in prison and Mr Mostafaei was forced to flee the country last July. Ms Ashtiani’s supporters have no doubt that the statements were not made freely.

“It’s obvious and blatant. Sajad and Sakineh are in a very bad position and will say whatever they’re told to,” Mr Mostafaei told The Times from Norway. “All the media attention on Sakineh has resulted in condemnation of the regime and now it’s trying to justify its actions.”

He doubted that Mr Ghaderzade had really been freed, saying that his family could not afford the $US40,000 bail he allegedly posted.

Mina Ahadi, co-ordinator of the International Committee Against Stoning, said: “I think [Ms Ashtiani] is under enormous pressure from the Islamic regime and that she is saying this under pressure.”

A spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry said: “The contents of the declarations and the manner in which they were made really raise questions. Unfortunately, it is not uncommon in Iran for people to be forced to make statements.” A hundred ministers, business leaders and sports stars in Germany, including Boris Becker and Michael Schumacher, published an appeal for the release of the journalists, Marcus Hellwig and Jens Koch, in Bild am Sonntag, the newspaper for which they were working.

Lawrence Cannon, Canada’s Foreign Minister, called on Ali Akbar Salehi, his newly appointed Iranian counterpart, to mark the start of the New Year and new decade by improving Iran’s human rights record.

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