LONDON – An Iranian woman whose sentence of death by stoning was lifted earlier this month says she’s grateful for the international support she’s received, but remains heartbroken at the separation from her children and tormented by the fear she could still be executed, a rights activist said Friday.
Iranian officials have said Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani will be spared stoning, which in Iran involves being buried from the chest down and pelted with rocks.
The announcement came after international outrage over plans to execute the mother of two for adultery – an offence her supporters say she confessed to under duress.
Germany-based activist Mina Ahadi, who helped publicize the case, said Friday that Ashtiani remains locked up in Tabriz prison in northwestern Iran and could still be hanged. Many others on Iran’s death row still face the prospect of being stoned, Ahadi said.
“You’re talking about the Middle Ages,” she told journalists in London, speaking through a translator. “Stoning is a form of terrorism.”
Ahadi read out a message from Ashtiani in which she spoke of her shock at the sentence and said that “part of my heart is frozen.”
“The day they sentenced me to stoning, it was as if I fell into the bottom of a well, and I lost consciousness,” the message read. “Many nights before going to sleep I think: ‘Who can think of throwing a stone against me, and crushing my face and hands?
“From Tabriz prison, I thank all of you. Tell everyone I am afraid of dying.”
Ahadi said Ashtiani had dictated the message over the phone from prison during the past week. Ahadi did not provide further details.
Ashtiani, who is in her early 40s, was first convicted in May 2006 of having an “illicit relationship” with two men following the death of her husband and sentenced to 99 lashes.
Later the same year, she was also convicted of adultery.
A translated court document handed out to journalists appears to show that judges were divided about Ashtiani’s guilt.
The minority opinion held that she was being tried twice for the same crime, and that in any case there was no proof she cheated on her husband.
“Prosecution in this case has no legal justification as no positive religious or legal evidence can be found,” the minority opinion read, according to the document. “The above-named is believed to be innocent of the charge.”
But the majority ruled that Ashtiani’s “severely corrupt mind,” as well as other evidence, pointed to the crime of adultery, and she was sentenced to death by stoning.
Ashtiani’s appeal failed, and she has been sitting on death row since.
She might have died in obscurity had it not been for the efforts of her tech-savvy attorney, Mohammad Mostafaei. Shortly after he published a blog post saying he feared his client would be executed imminently, the image of Ashtiani’s face – framed in a black chador – spread across newspaper front pages, television bulletins and the internet.
Celebrities including Robert Redford, Emma Thompson and Colin Firth put their names behind a campaign to release her, while the United States and Britain also demanded Ashtiani’s sentence be lifted.
Such a punishment would “disgust and appal the watching world,” British Foreign Secretary William Hague said, while Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu promised to raise the issue with Tehran.
Faced with a growing international outcry, the Iranian Embassy in London issued a statement saying Ashtiani would not be executed by stoning, although the announcement still left a question mark over her fate.
On Saturday, authorities called Mostafaei, her lawyer, in for questioning. He was released, but has since disappeared and is thought to be in hiding.
Ashtiani’s son, Sajad, has also had his cell phone blocked in an effort to prevent him from speaking about the case, Ahadi said.
Amnesty International Iran researcher Ann Harrison said about a dozen people are still thought to face death by stoning in Iran. Ahadi said Friday she believed the number could be twice as high.
The phone rang unanswered at the Iranian Embassy in London on Friday.