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Sentenced to death by stoning
It may be the oldest form of execution, and it is certainly among the most barbaric. In the West, death by stoning is so remote it is best known through Monty Python skits and lurid fiction. Yet two recent cases have struck a nerve: a young couple were stoned to death by the Taliban last week in Afghanistan for trying to elope. And last month, a global campaign rose up in defence of an Iranian woman who has been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery.
Much of the outrage these cases generated - apart from the sheer anachronism of stoning in the 21st century - seems to stem from the gulf between sexual attitudes in the West and parts of the Islamic world, where some radical movements have turned to draconian punishments, in their search for religious authenticity.
The stoning of adulterers was once aimed at preventing illegitimate births that might muddy the male tribal bloodlines of medieval Arabia. But it is now taking place in a world where more and more women demand reproductive freedoms, equal pay and equal status with men.
Those clashing perspectives became apparent last month when Brazil's president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, offered asylum to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, the Iranian woman convicted of adultery. His comments made clear that he viewed her as a victim - Brazil is not exactly known for its severe attitudes toward out-of-wedlock sex - and an online petition for her release drew thousands of signatures. The case became an embarrassment to the Iranian government, which values its ties with Brazil. The Iranian authorities quickly redefined her crime as murder, in an apparent effort to legitimise their case against her.
The Taliban, by contrast, are not vulnerable to shaming. They defined themselves through the imposition of an incredibly harsh and widely disputed version of Sharia, under which stonings for adultery became common. Last week's stoning, by hundreds of villagers in Kunduz, was an indicator of where Afghanistan may be headed.
"There is no way to say how many stonings took place, but it was widespread when the Taliban ruled", said Nader Nadery of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission. "Often the man escaped, and only the woman was punished, especially if he had connections with the Taliban. " Other sexual crimes were accorded similarly grotesque penalties: homosexuals, for instance, had a brick wall collapsed onto them.
Stoning is not practiced only among Muslims, nor did it begin with Islam. The Old Testament includes an episode in which Moses arranges for a man who violated the Sabbath to be stoned. It also probably took place among Jewish communities in the ancient Near East. Rabbinic law, composed in the first century AD, specifies it as the penalty for some crimes. But it is not clear to what extent it was used, if ever, said Barry Wimpfheimer, professor of religion at Northwestern University.
Some Muslims complain that stoning - along with other traditional penalties like whipping and amputation - is sensationalised in the West to smear the reputation of Islam. Most of these punishments are carried out by the Taliban and other radicals who, scholars say, have little knowledge of Sharia. Stoning is a legal punishment in only a handful of Muslim countries - in addition to Iran, they include Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan and Nigeria - but it is rarely put to use.
Stoning is not even prescribed by the Koran. The punishment is rooted in Islamic legal traditions, known as hadiths, that designate it as the penalty for adultery. While the penalty may seem savage to Western eyes, scholars say it is consistent with the values of Arabian society at the time of Prophet Muhammad. Adultery "was considered to offend some of the fundamental purposes of Islamic law: to protect lineage, family, honour and property," said Kristen Stilt, professor at Northwestern University. "It was a tribal society, and knowing who children belonged to was important. "
That may help explain the link between sexual crimes and stoning, as opposed to another form of execution. A crime that seemed to violate the community's identity called for a communal response. Certainly the special horror of stoning is rooted in the prospect of being pelted to death by one's own friends, neighbours and relatives.
But Sharia requires strict conditions for a stoning sentence: four male witnesses must attest to having seen the sexual act and their accounts must match, else they can be subject to penalties. Some scholars even argue that the penalty is more a symbolic warning against misbehaviour than as a punishment to be taken literally.
In any case, societies evolve. The move to implement severe penalties like stoning is ultimately a matter of policy, not religious orthodoxy. Even under the Ottoman empire, when secular and religious authority were combined, stoning and other penalties were viewed at times as crude remnants of the past.
Iranian leaders are uneasy about stoning, which has helped to darken their country's reputation. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad recently said "very few" people were sentenced to stoning, and that the judiciary did not release information about these cases. Lawyers say as many as 100 stonings have been carried out since the revolution, but that the practice was becoming less common. Between 2006 and 2008, at least six stonings took place, all of them in secret. Currently, 10 are in Iranian jails under stoning sentences, of which seven are women.
There is a vigorous domestic campaign against stoning in Iran. The former head of Iran's judiciary made several recommendations to judges not to impose or implement stoning sentences, but all have been ignored. A parliamentary committee recommended last year that stoning be deleted from the penal code, but the measure has not been taken to a vote. In Afghanistan, by contrast, stoning is on the rise. "You do see an increase in these so-called applications of justice by the Taliban in morality cases, " Nadery said. "Over the last seven months, 200 people have been killed for showing disapproval or criticising actions by the Taliban." NYT NEWS SERVICE
Iranian law spells out three ways an adulterer can be sentenced to stoning: The defendant confesses, witnesses testify to the defendant's guilt, or the judge convicts the defendant based on his own 'knowledge'. When it comes to witnesses, one isn't enough - four men to testify, or three men and two women. If two men and four women testify, the adulterer can only be sentenced to flogging Before the sentence is carried out, Iran's Islamic Penal Code states, the alleged adulterer must be wrapped in a white cloth sack with hands tied. Men are to be buried in the ground up to their waists;while women up to their chests. If the conviction is based on the prisoner's confession, the presiding judge casts the first stone. If the conviction is based on witness testimony, the witnesses throw the first stones, then the judge, then everyone else Stones must be of medium size: Not so big that one or two could kill the person, and not so small that it would take days. The size must be similar to that of an apple. The whole process takes less than an hour. People who manage to escape from the hole are allowed to go free. But this applies only to those who have confessed to their crimes, not to those sentenced on the basis of witness testimony.
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