Totalitarianism thrives on deliberate ambiguity and the installation of perpetual fear in the mind of its subjected citizenry. Even after emigrating to Great Britain, the great Hungarian-Russian historian Tibor Szamuely could never get to bed at night because he never knew when that knock at the door by Stalin’s secret police might come. For those still living in closed societies, prison or execution is simply a question of when – and that’s a question that totalitarians love to toy with.
Consider the plight of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two, who was sentenced to death in Iran for two separate crimes – murder and adultery. Like Nabokov’s Cincinnatus C., she’s never been told with any certitude the exact time of her demise, although a false rumor by a well-meaning human rights group made it seem as if it were yesterday.
In response, the White House issued a press release “condemn[ing] in the strongest terms” the decision to hurl rocks at a woman who’s languished in a prison for four years already. British foreign minister William Hague rightly called stoning “a barbaric punishment.” Even EU foreign policy chief, Baroness Catherine was roused into expressing “deep concern” about Ashtiani’s fate. And, in the midst of ongoing mass riots throughout France, a smaller contingent of feminists lined up outside the Iranian embassy in Paris Wednesday to protest the impending execution.
But now, it seems, the stoning hasn’t happened and likely won’t do – at least not yet.
Cue the Iranian government’s propaganda engine which has claimed a minor victory over the “Western media” seeking to fashion a routine Iranian court case into a “lever with which to pressure our nation.”
Yet the whole give-and-take of speculation and confirmation shows the extent of the theocracy’s preferred method of psychological torture: Will we or won’t we?
Ashtiani was actually tried twice in 2006 in two separate court cases in Tabriz, the main city of Iran’s Azerbaijan. The first time, in May of that year, she was found guilty of murdering her husband. Yet even by Iranian standards, this trial was farce as her in-laws revealingly asked for neither Ashtiani’s death or for “blood money,” which they are entitled to do under sharia law. The court sentenced to death by hanging, later commuted to 10 years in prison and 99 lashes by a whip (the latter of these punishments was supposedly carried out in front of Ashtiani’s 17-year-old son).
In September 2006, Ashtiani was further convicted of adultery with “unnamed” men, two of whom were allegedly responsible for the murder of her husband. Yet an adultery conviction in Iran requires four witnesses to the act itself and the state proffered none. Nevertheless, this time Ashtiani was sentenced to death by stoning.
Since her name became a byword for human rights agitation within and without the Islamic Republic, there has been a nation-wide ban on reporting or publicizing Ashtiani’s case, the obscure details of which have been further aided by the government’s policy of issuing conflicting statements about it.
For instance, in July 2010, the Iranian embassy in London made it seem as if Ashtiani hadn’t been sentenced to stoning at all; but the following day, the head of the Human Rights Council of the Islamic Republic Judiciary confirmed that she had been.
So far, one of Ashtiani’s lawyers, Mohammed Mostafaei, has faced his own criminal proceedings for calling too much international attention to her plight. Last July, he was arrested and interrogated in Tehran’s Evin prison for four hours. He evidently suspected a repeat performance as he soon fled, along with his wife and brother-in-law, to Turkey before being granted asylum in Norway.
Two recent incidents have lent an aura of confusion and hyper-vigilance to his client’s legal circumstance. The first was an Iranian state television broadcast on August 12 that featured a woman who may or may not have been Ashtiani “confessing” to adultery and her complicity in her husband’s death. Another human rights lawyer party to her case claims that she had been tortured consistently for two days prior to this coerced confession. This was soon followed on August 28 by threats that she would be hanged the next day at dawn.
That same day, the Times of London published a photograph of an unveiled woman that it falsely identified as Ashtiani, which the newspaper says it received from Mostafaei. In retaliation, the Iranian authorities added “spreading corruption and indecency” to Ashtiani’s ever-expanding list of charges and was again whipped 99 times.
On September 15, she or a woman posing as her once more appeared Iranian state television to disclaim being tortured or lashed as a result of the Times photo.
Whatever happens to Ashtiani, one can only guess at the psychological torture she and her family have endured because their government takes sadistic joy in treating capriciously the matter of whether she lives or dies.
Michael Weiss is the executive director of Just Journalism, a London-based think tank that monitors the British media's coverage of Israel and the Middle East.