Iran: Stoning to Death for Adultery—Discriminatory Laws Target Iranian Women

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1 Mar 2007


Kobra NajjarKobra Najjar is a 44-year-old Iranian woman whose husband subjected her to systematic violence during their marriage, and forced her into prostitution for 12 years in order to sustain his heroin addiction. Habib, a “client” of Kobra who sympathized with her plight, murdered Kobra’s husband. He was sentenced to death for this murder. However, after enduring 100 lashes for fornication and serving eight years, Habib was released upon paying compensation for the murder to the heirs of the victim.  Kobra herself was charged by the Tabriz High Court with being an accomplice to the murder of her husband, and also with adultery for which she was sentenced to death by stoning. Two years ago, Kobra completed her eight-year sentence for being an accomplice. She now faces the sentence of stoning for the crime of adultery. 

Kobra Najjar is one of 8 women among 9 recently reported cases of people facing the punishment of death by stoning under Article 83 of the Iranian Penal Code. Adultery (sexual intercourse by married persons with anyone other than their spouse) is the only crime in Iran that can incur the punishment of stoning, but all sexual intercourse outside marriage is illegal and can result in flogging, or hanging for the fourth offense. In December 2002 Ayatollah Shahroudi, Head of the Iranian Judiciary, declared a moratorium on stoning in Iran. However, stoning sentences continue to be handed down as no change has been made to the Iranian Penal Code to prohibit them.  Following criticism of Iran’s stoning practice in November 2006, a spokesman for the judiciary, Mr. Jamal Karimirad, publicly denied that stoning is being carried out, saying that even if some courts issue such sentences, they are subsequently commuted and never implemented. However, it is known that in May 2006 the punishment of stoning was carried out against a man and a woman, Abbas H. and Mahboubeh M., for adultery. Stoning sentences can also be replaced with hanging, and two women originally sentenced to death by stoning for adultery are known to have been hung in 2006.

Following her visit to Iran in 2005, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women reported that 200 of the 397 women then detained in Evin prison in Iran were under sentence of death for moral or sexual offenses such as adultery, which she attributed to “the gender-biases in the attitudinal and institutional structure of the country.” One consequence of the failure of the Iranian government to uphold and enforce gender equality is that women are disproportionately charged with sexual offenses. In adultery cases, the Penal Code permits judges to pass sentences based on their own understanding of a case, even if there is insufficient or no evidence to support such a charge. This provision perpetuates discrimination within the judicial system by allowing convictions based on subjective interpretations of what constitutes appropriate female behavior. Ayatollah Shahroudi himself recently acknowledged the danger of issuing capital punishments when proof is not evaluated on objective criteria and concrete evidence, but rather on a judge’s so-called "knowledge" of a case. However, no change has been made to the Penal Code to address this concern.

The Civil and Penal Codes in Iran enshrining laws discriminatory towards women play a critical role in perpetuating violence against women. For example, girls can be legally married from the age of 13. Women can obtain a divorce only with great difficulty, and the added deterrent of potentially losing custody of any children above the age of seven years old to the father or paternal grandfatherften compels women to remain even in abusive marriages.  Proving claims of violence against women is also severely hampered by discriminatory laws of evidence. A woman’s testimony is worth only half that of a man in all civil and criminal cases and a woman’s testimony must be corroborated by a man’s testimony in order to prove rape under the Hudood law. This makes prosecuting rape extremely difficult, and as a consequence women who are unable to prove that they have been raped risk being charged with false accusation or adultery themselves. Additionally, girls above the age of 8 years and 9 months are considered adults under Iranian law, and are therefore liable to punishments such as flogging, stoning and hanging for fornication or adultery. In contrast, men can marry up to four women at the same time, can enjoy “temporary marriages” (a socially and legally sanctioned mechanism for men to have sex outside permanent marriage) and can obtain a divorce at will.  The law also designates the husband to be “head of household,” which accords him special privileges under Iranian family law that are denied to women. All these provisions exist despite Article 3(14) of the Constitution of Iran, which explicitly states that the government has a duty to secure “the multifarious rights of all citizens, both women and men,” and to provide “legal protection for all, as well as the equality of all before the law.” Article 19 of the Constitution provides that “[a]ll people of Iran, whatever the ethnic group or tribe to which they belong, enjoy equal rights; and color, race, language, and the like, do not bestow any privilege.”  Article 20 of the Constitution states that men and women “equally enjoy the protection of the law and enjoy human, political, economic, social and cultural rights, in conformity with Islamic criteria.”

The disproportionate conviction of women for adultery is one of the many forms of discrimination against women in Iran. The practice of stoning has been condemned by the United Nations as a prolonged form of torture. Stoning is in contravention of Article 7 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), ratified by Iran, which provides for the right not to be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.  Additionally, Article 6(2) of the ICCPR states that in countries that have not abolished the death penalty, this may be imposed only for the most serious crimes.  The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors states parties’ compliance with the ICCPR, has repeatedly emphasized that stoning to death for adultery is a punishment grossly disproportionate to the nature of the crime and therefore incompatible with Iran’s obligations under the convention.  In a 1994 case from Australia, the Human Rights Committee stated that consensual sexual activity between adults in private is clearly protected by Article 17 of the ICCPR from arbitrary or unlawful interference.

What You Can Do: 

Please write to the Iranian officials below, calling for the immediate commutation of all sentences of death by stoning and the prohibition by law of all cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments, such as stoning and flogging, in accordance with Iran’s obligations under the ICCPR.  Urge them to promote compliance with Article 17 of the ICCPR, which protects individuals from unreasonable interference with their privacy.  Urge the officials also to initiate a comprehensive review of the Civil and Penal Codes of Iran to remove all provisions that discriminate and perpetuate discrimination against women, including those regarding adultery and fornication, in accordance with Iran’s own constitutional provision for equality before the law.  Encourage them to ratify international human rights instruments such as the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Letters should be addressed to:

His Excellency Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi
Head of the Judiciary
c/o Ministry of Justice          
Park-e Shahr
Islamic Republic of Iran
Fax: +98 21 3311 6567

His Excellency Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
President of the Islamic Republic of Iran
Presidency Office
Pasteur Avenue, Postal Box 1423-13185
Teheran 13168-43311
Islamic Republic of Iran
Fax: +98 21 6646 2774