Reporting from Beirut — After a spirited international campaign joined by Western politicians and celebrities, the Iranian government apparently will not stone a woman accused of adultery. But human rights activists and her lawyer still worried Friday that she could be executed by other means.
Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two, has been imprisoned in the city of Tabriz since 2006 after being charged with having sex outside of marriage, considered a serious offense under Islamic law. She was convicted of the charge, even though her husband had been slain before the alleged affair, and she received a public flogging.
Rights activists and Ashtiani's family say that during the later trial of two men accused of killing her husband, another court found her guilty of committing adultery with the suspects before her husband's death, though it cited no evidence, and sentenced her to death.
On Thursday, Iran's Embassy in London issued a news release saying Ashtiani would not be stoned to death, a gruesome process in which a person is buried up to their chest or neck and then pelted with medium-sized rocks until they die. However, Iranian officials have yet to clarify what fate awaits the woman.
"The communique is not enough," said Mohammad Mostafai, Ashtiani's lawyer, who has been blogging on his client's behalf for weeks.
"It's ambiguous," he said in a telephone interview from Tehran, the Iranian capital. "It does not say if the sentence has been turned into another sentence. It does not say if she is going to be free. It does not say what will happen to her next."
The embassy in Britain described word of the impending stoning as "false news" and said that "according to information from the relevant judicial authorities in Iran, she will not be executed by stoning punishment."
But Mostafai and international human rights activists said they were worried because Iran's judiciary has yet to issue a statement rejecting the use of stoning in the case. Iran is among the world's top practitioners of capital punishment. The rights group Amnesty International reports that 126 executions have been carried out this year.
Ashtiani's tale also points to the changing nature of Iranian society. Traditional and pious families often shun a relative accused of adultery. But Ashtiani's children, especially her son, who is in his 20s, have stood by her and helped mobilize international support.
The case also suggests that Iran's government, which has grown more repressive since the crackdown that followed the disputed June 2009 presidential election, remains susceptible to public pressure.
"Our campaign has shown that we can force the regime to back down," said Mina Ahadi, an Iranian human rights activist based in Germany. "Our pressure is working. We must intensify it until we secure a victory for the people of Iran by saving the lives of Sakineh and others."
The trial of Ashtiani unfolded in the province of East Azerbaijan. Her defenders say Ashtiani, a member of Iran's ethnic Azeri community, could not clearly understand the Persian-language court proceedings. She has retracted a confession, which she says was obtained under duress, and insists she is innocent of adultery.
The case attracted worldwide attention. A-list Hollywood stars including Robert Redford, Emma Thompson and Colin Firth, along with politicians including Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and British Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the stoning sentence.
"We're deeply troubled by press reports of the planned execution by Iranian authorities of Ms. Ashtiani by stoning," U.S. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Thursday. "Stoning, as a means of execution, is tantamount to torture. It's barbaric and an abhorrent act."
Amnesty International says seven Iranian women and three men await death by stoning, which is a practice Iranian officials have repeatedly promised to halt.
Katz is a special correspondent.