Executions, Secrecy and the Public Right to Know

Sakineh Ashtiani is at risk of execution in Iran. Last month, her lawyer and her son were arrested, apparently for discussing her case with foreign nationals.  Her other lawyer, prominent human rights and death penalty defense lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei, was hounded into exile over the summer when he refused to be silenced.

Alan Shadrake is due to be sentenced next Tuesday 9 November © Alan Shadrake

In Singapore, Alan Shadrake is now a convicted criminal because he wrote a book about capital punishment in that country.  He could be sent to prison next week.

While these episodes may be extreme, the same efforts to suppress information about the death penalty are at work here in the USA where, for instance, a state law in Missouri makes it a crime – even for journalists – to reveal the identities of those who participate in executions.

It’s the same principle of secrecy that allows Arizona and California to continue to conceal the source of their execution drugs, or for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to call for such information to be classified as a “state secret.”  The claim that such secrecy is necessary to protect executioners from harassment is incredibly weak.  Other government agencies and employees (for example, the guy at the DMV who makes you wait in line, or the city employee who gives you parking tickets) don’t benefit from such undemocratic anonymity.  The public has a fundamental right to know what a state agency is doing with their tax dollars, especially when that agency is engaged in the ultimate act of state power – the killing of a human being.

Most of us would agree (I hope) that lawyers should not be detained for publicizing their client’s case, and that no one should be punished for writing about a country’s death penalty (although that could happen under Missouri’s law).  When government is exercising its greatest power, that’s when we should demand the greatest transparency.  This is essential to ensuring accountability and preventing that power from being abused.

Instead, we are seeing, both globally and here in the USA, a disturbing trend towards imposing greater secrecy on the executions that are carried out in our name.

Fears Grow for Iran Stoning Case Lawyer and Son

As reports surfaced this week of the imminent execution of Iran’s Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, we are also grew increasingly concerned with the fate of her lawyer and son.  We fear they are being held solely for trying to pass on information about her case.

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is the 43-year-old mother of two at risk of execution by stoning, held on death row in Iran since her conviction in 2006 on charges of “adultery while married”.

The Iranian State Prosecutor, in his role as spokesperson for the judiciary, confirmed on Monday that Javid Houtan Kiyan, Sakineh Ashtiani’s lawyer, had been arrested on October 10 and that he was still under investigation for links to “anti-revolutionary groups abroad”.  He also said that Javid Houtan Kiyan had been found in possession of three forged or duplicate ID cards.

Media reports have said that Javid Houtan Kiyan was arrested along with Sajjad Ghaderzadeh, the son of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, and two German nationals.

We fear that Javid Houtan Kiyan may have been detained for no more than fulfilling his responsibilities as Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani’s lawyer, and for talking to foreign nationals.

His detention – part of the Iranian authorities ongoing targeting of defence lawyers – further undermines an already deeply flawed justice system which has failed Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani from the start.  She has been left for weeks without legal representation and without access to any family visits, which makes her situation all the more precarious.

The Iranian authorities have a track-record of bringing politically-motivated trumped up criminal charges against defense lawyers.


Iran Stoning Case Lawyer Hounded into Exile

Mohammad Mostafaei

The Iranian legal system operates in the shadows.  Many defendants—especially those accused of politically motivated offenses—do not even know what they are charged with or what evidence exists against them. They have only limited access, if any, to their lawyers, and they are subjected to torture to extract confessions which can be used against them. Trials for people facing serious charges, including those punishable by the death penalty, can last just a few short minutes. Individuals trapped in this system are in desperate need of expert and committed legal representation and dozens of them, many of whom indigent or marginalized members of society, found just that in the person of the heroic Mohammad Mostafaei. He is particularly known for his work to represent juvenile offenders sentenced to death. Among his recent clients were Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani—sentenced to be stoned to death for adultery—whose case has received world-wide media attention, and Ebrahim Hamidi, a teenager sentenced to death for supposedly sexually assaulting a man during a fight when he was just sixteen years old.

However Mr. Mostafaei has made enormous sacrifices in order to continue his courageous efforts on behalf of his clients and of justice in Iran. He has faced persistent harassment by Iranian authorities, who have evidently perceived him as a “thorn in their side” because his work publicly exposed the serious flaws in the legal system. He had already been detained briefly in June 2009 in the wake of the post-election protests. His work on behalf of Ms Ashtiani and Ebrahim Hamidi must have especially irked the Iranian authorities because of all the negative publicity the cases generated. Mohammad Mostafaei was again detained and interrogated in July 2010 and his wife and brother-in-law were arrested as he went into hiding in order to avoid further persecution by the government. Finally, he was forced to flee Iran into Turkey and has now arrived in Norway. While he is thankfully safe, his forced exile is an enormous loss to Iranians who need his help. He joins a long and growing list of prominent Iranian human rights defenders who have been hounded into exile—including women’s rights activist and anti-stoning campaigner Shadi Sadr, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi.

Exiled Iranian dissidents and activists continue to speak out against human rights violations from abroad, but are sadly unable to directly engage with Iranian authorities or carry out hands-on assistance, for instance to clients struggling in the legal system. The forced exile of numbers of Iran’s best and brightest is likely one more weapon in the Iranian government’s arsenal used to neutralize any dissent or effective opposition.


Iran Must End Harassment of Stoning Case Lawyer

We reported last month that Iran halted the stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. And while this may seem like cause for celebration, an uneasy cloud of uncertainty has shrouded this potential victory.  We still fear that Ashtiani may be hanged, as charges against her have surfaced in connection to the murder of her husband.

Mostafaei is defending Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was sentenced to death by stoning.

But this is not the only unsettling development for those involved in the case.  Yesterday, we denounced the arrest of Mohammad Mostafaei’s wife and brother-in-law, Fereshteh and Farhad Halimi, urging the Iranian authorities to stop harassing Mostafaei.

Mostafaei, a leading human rights lawyer, is defense counsel for Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, whose sentence of death by stoning for alleged adultery recently provoked wide an international public outcry and is a focus of continuing protests and worldwide demands for clemency.

He was issued with a summons on July 21 requiring him to go to a branch of the Prosecutor’s Office in Evin Prison. He went there on July 24, was questioned for at least one hour and then was released. Later, however, he received a further summons by telephone. The same evening, his wife and her brother were arrested and have been detained since.

Mostafaei’s current whereabouts are not known. On the evening of July 24, he wrote on his Facebook account: “it is possible they will arrest me.”

Amnesty International is urging its membership to appeal to the head of the Iranian Judiciary and other authorities to stop harassing Mostafaei and release Fereshteh and Farhad Halimi.

Story of Two Women: Two Death Sentences in Iran

Zeynab Jalalian credit: ICHRI

This past week Amnesty International and other human rights organizations have been highlighting the plight of two women sentenced to death in Iran. Both of them have suffered incredible injustices, but their stories are actually very different and while one of them has received a great deal of publicity, the other has failed to attract the attention that her case deserves.

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a mother of two, was convicted of “adultery while being married” and was sentenced to be executed by stoning.  Her story received an avalanche of coverage in the international media—much of which detailed the gruesome particulars of death by stoning. Following a world-wide outcry that included human rights activists as well as Hollywood celebrities and high officials such as the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, the Iranian Embassy in London announced on July 8 that Ms Ashtiani would in fact not be stoned, although her ultimate fate is still unclear. The welcome announcement that the stoning will not be carried out demonstrates the effectiveness and the importance of vigorously protesting Iran’s human rights violations; despite some claims to the contrary, the Iranian government is not immune to international pressure and world opinion. The apparent concession is however indicative of where the Iranian authorities’ true priorities lie.

The second woman, Zeynab Jalalian is a 27-year-old ethnic Kurdish political activist. She was sentenced to death in early 2009 after being convicted of “Moharebeh (“enmity against God”) and she is in imminent danger of execution by hanging at any time. Currently held in Evin Prison, Tehran, she was arrested in 2007. Her conviction was based on her alleged membership in a Kurdish armed opposition group. She has said she was tortured and sexually abused in detention. She is reported not to have been granted access to her lawyer during her trial, which is said to have lasted only a few minutes and during which no evidence was reportedly produced against her. Zeynab Jalalian’s death sentence was upheld on appeal and confirmed by the Supreme Court on 26 November 2009.  Her family have received no news of her for a month and have been told by the authorities that her case file has been “lost.”

While the Iranian authorities have relented in the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, they have so far remained intractable in the case of Zeynab Jalalian. Despite the gross injustice she has suffered and the gravity of her situation, she has not attracted the same media attention as Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani.  Although execution by hanging may be less “sensational” than execution by stoning, and although conviction on politically motivated charges—however unsubstantiated—may seem less  deplorable than conviction for adultery, it can be argued that Zeynab Jalalian’s case raises more profound concerns about the Iranian authorities’ abuse of their citizens.


Mother to be stoned to death in Iran

UPDATE:  Iran halted death by stoning for Ashtiani.  However she could still face the death penalty.  Please take action to stop the execution.

On June 30, Amnesty  reported that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian mother of two, could be stoned to death at any moment.

Her crime?  Adultery.

While extreme cases of adultery in the US turn into tabloid fodder, Iran’s penal code prescribes execution by stoning as the penalty for adultery by married persons.

Ashtiani was convicted after confessing in 2006.  Human rights lawyer, Mohammad Mostafaei, however, said Thursday that her confession was coerced; Ashtiani only confessed after suffering 99 lashes.  And though Ashtiani has since retracted her confession, Iran’s supreme court upheld the conviction in 2007.

Amnesty International reported in 2008 that the majority of those sentenced to death by stoning are women.

Mina Ahadi, head of the International Committee Against Stoning and the Death Penalty, believes that pressure from groups like Amnesty International is the only likely way to save Ashtiani.

On Wednesday, Amnesty International made a new call to the Iranian government to immediately halt all executions and put a halt on all death sentences.  According to Amnesty, Iran has issued 126 executions so far in 2010.

In 2007, in reaction to another stoning case in Iran, Amnesty International UK Director, Kate Allen, said, “To execute anyone by stoning is barbaric and disgraceful; to execute a woman for adultery in this cruel way simply beggars belief… Iran should abolish the sentence of stoning once and for all.

Of course, Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases.  Execution by stoning, however, is particularly cruel, because according to Iranian penal code, it is specifically designed to increase the victim’s suffering since the stones are deliberately chosen to be large enough to cause pain, but not so large as to kill the victim immediately.