- The Washington Times - Monday, August 16, 2010

The Islamic Republic of Iran has a habit of throwing rocks at its perceived enemies, but the mullahs in Tehran are slowly learning that the civilized world will not countenance the practice. Iranian officials last week commuted the sentence of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old woman who had been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery. But all is not well yet.

When news of Mrs. Ashtiani’s sentence began reaching the outside world in recent weeks, it prompted an international outcry. “Death by stoning is always cruel and inhuman, and it is especially abhorrent in cases where judges rely on their own hunches instead of evidence to proclaim a defendant guilty,” said Nadya Khalife of Human Rights Watch last week. Democratic Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, condemned Iran’s execution method as “appalling” and “barbaric.” The Web is replete with videos of stonings in Iran that show women buried up to their necks and pelted with stones hefty enough to inflict injury but not large enough to kill. Victims often die in slow agony.

Human rights organizations now fear that authorities will simply take an alternate tack and hang Mrs. Ashtiani instead. Chillingly, Iranian television broadcast a blurry interview with the woman on Wednesday in which she purportedly confessed to adultery and a new charge of complicity in the murder of her husband. But her lawyer, Mohammad Mostafaei, said the confession had been extracted through torture. Mr. Mostafaei himself was forced to flee Iran earlier this month and seek asylum in Norway after learning that his vociferous defense of Mrs. Ashtiani was about to result in his arrest.

New York-based Human Rights Watch expressed “grave concerns” Friday that the televised confession signals that her execution is imminent. Amnesty International also denounced the broadcast: “It appears that Iran’s authorities have orchestrated this ‘confession,’ following the call for a judicial review,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director at Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program. The organization said it is aware of at least 10 other people - seven women and three men - under a death sentence by stoning. Last year, at least three people sentenced to death by stoning were in fact hung.

Stoning was integrated into Iran’s legal system in 1983 with the adoption of the Islamic Penal Code. An official moratorium was placed on the practice in 2002 but judges have continued to issue the sentence. The Iranian parliament has been considering a revision of the code that would exclude stoning but it has yet to be ratified.

Iran is discovering that few outside the Middle East favor the mullahs’ attempt to drag humanity back to an earlier era in human history, before justice was tempered by forgiveness. Only the benighted would willingly return to a world devoid of compassion for human frailty embodied by the wise words, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.” It is long past time for Iran to remove the barbaric practice of stoning from its legal code, once and for all.