While the campaign to stop a 45-year-old Iranian widow from being stoned to death continues to grow, there is much the international community doesn't know about the matter.
"A cloud of uncertainty hovers over the entire case," said Nader Hashemi, an assistant professor of Islamic politics at the University of Denver.
It seems clear that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani was convicted of "illicit sex" and sentenced to 99 lashes that were meted out to her in 2006. Subsequently, however, she was charged with "adultery while being married" and received the death sentence. Observers infer that she was tried twice for the same offence, albeit with different names and different penalties.
The second charge arose from evidence given at the trial of a man accused of murdering Ms. Mohammadi Ashtiani's husband. It is implied, though never clearly stated, that the man was her lover. Might she then have been charged as an accomplice in the murder? Or even as a conspirator and, thereby, a murderer herself? There is no evidence that she was.
But that was the suggestion made by Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of Iran's High Council for Human Rights, who said this past weekend that Ms. Mohammadi Ashtiani had been "convicted of murdering her husband and adultery." No one else, it appears, has said this, yet Mr. Larijani is a very senior official and not likely to have been misquoted.
"He must have been misquoted," said Soheila Vahdati, an Iranian-American human-rights activist who has spoken with both Ms. Mohammadi Ashtiani's lawyer and her son. "No one has ever said she was convicted of murder.
Then there's the statement made Monday by Malek Ajdar Sharifi, chief of the judiciary of East Azerbaijan, the province in which Ms. Mohammadi Ashtiani was convicted. Mr. Sharifi said that the heinousness of the defendant's crimes defied belief.
"If we give the details of the crimes she committed, the public will understand the depth of her inhuman and criminal nature," he said. "But due to humanitarian considerations we can't give the details."
"It certainly suggests there's more to the case than meets the eye," Prof. Hashemi said, "but no one seems to know what that is."
As for the sentence of stoning, while not frequently carried out, there are some 15 people in East Azerbaijan alone currently sentenced to stoning for various crimes of adultery.
Yet it is Ms. Mohammadi Ashtiani's case that has received special attention, thanks in large part to the efforts of her sons who took their mother's case to the international community, with some success.
"When it comes to stoning in Iran," Ms. Vahdati said, "the practice is to try to carry it out without anyone learning about it. But if people find out, then switch to hanging the person."
That's what happened in the case of Abdollah Farivar in 2008. Mr. Farivar was convicted of "illicit relationship outside marriage" and sentenced to death by stoning. A worldwide campaign persuaded Iranian officials to review his sentence and, in the end, Mr. Farivar was hanged.
Ms. Mohammadi Ashtiani's stoning is currently on hold while image-conscious Iranian leaders to "review" the sentence.
DEATH BY STONING
It was the revolutionary government of Iran in 1979 that put the punishment of stoning into the country's criminal code. "Before that, there is no documentation of it being part of Iran's legal system," said Soheila Vahdati, an Iranian-American human-rights activist who has specialized in the field. "Perhaps it was carried out in remote villages, but unofficially."
The Koran misconception
While revolutionary Iran proclaimed itself to be following Islamic principles, "there's not a trace of the idea in the Koran," Ms. Vahdati said. "Most Islamic societies long ago evolved to much less violent, less barbaric punishments," said Nader Hashemi, an Iranian-Canadian professor at the University of Denver. "And even in Iran, during the [Mohammad]Khatami presidency, there was a moratorium on stoning," he said, referring to the 1997-2005 administration of a reformist president. "But that was over when [Mahmoud]Ahmadinejad came to power."
While not in the Koran, the punishment of death by stoning can be found in the Bible's Old Testament, and formed the basis of early Jewish law in matters of adultery. Deuteronomy Chapter 22, Verse 21 advises what should be done if a new husband discovers his bride is not a virgin: "Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father's house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father's house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you." Verses 23-24 decree that "If a damsel that is a virgin be betrothed unto an husband, and a man find her in the city, and lie with her; then ye shall bring them both out unto the gate of that city, and ye shall stone them with stones that they die." The punishment was reinterpreted and dropped in later Jewish law.
Stoning also is at the centre of one of the famous parables of Jesus (John 8:7) in which a group of Pharisees (a Jewish political movement) brings a woman to Jesus and demands that he order her stoned as called for by Mosaic law. He silenced them by saying: "He that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone at her."