LONDON Nov. 19, 2010 -- Iran's top human rights official has come under fire for defending his country's use of stoning adulterers and others designated as criminals under Islamic law, claiming it is a "lesser punishment" than execution because it allows people a chance to survive.
Mohammad-Javad Larijani, a senior envoy and chief of Iran's Human Rights Council, rejected international condemnations of the practice which has included censure by the U.N., and he described stoning as a controlled legal procedure.
"Stoning means you should do a number of acts, by throwing the stone in a limited number, in a special way.…In the eyes of some people, stoning is a lesser punishment than execution because there is a chance you should survive," Larijani said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal published today.
Iran has been under international pressure over stonings since the sentencing of Sakineh Ashtiani, 43, for a 2006 adultery charge.
The lawyer representing Ashtiani told ABC News that despite Larijani's mantle as a defender of human rights, he is closely allied with Iran's staunchly conservative Islamic government.
"Larijani is a die-hard establishment figure not at all connected to human rights who is just trying to justify the regime's crimes," said Mohammed Mostafaei, who had to flee Iran after he was threatened with arrest for defending Ashtiani.
"What we know about stoning in Iran is just the tip of the iceberg. Many more stonings take place without lawyers involved," he said.
Ashtiani has confessed on Iranian television three times, though her face was blurred in the broadcasts. Her sentence has reportedly been changed from stoning to hanging, but stoning remains an option.
"Stoning exists in Iran and is part of the legal code," said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the international Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. "Stoning is clearly a form of murder and torture. International law forbids the use of torture and stoning."
"Larijani is giving the ruling class' interpretation of Sharia law," said Ghaemi. "Many other religious leaders disagree."
Rules for Stoning
Stonings are typically carried out in a secluded cemetery outside of public view. Stones, prescribed under Iran's Islamic Penal Code, must be large enough not kill with one blow, but not so small as to not cause injury.
Larijani's contention that it is possible to survive a stoning seems to apply more to men than women.
Men are buried to their waists, but women are buried up to their shoulders. Ghaemi said that under Iranian law, the stoning ends in many cases if the accused confessed his crime and can dig himself out of the hole.
In practice, a women buried to her shoulders with tennis-balls sized rocks raining down on her head has little chance to free herself, human rights activists said.
Stoning has other specific rules. In adultery cases where the condemned has confessed to her crime, the judge throws the first stone. In cases where the accused has been convicted from witness testimony, the witnesses throw the first stones.
In both cases of adultery and homosexuality a women's testimony is "completely worthless," according to the country's penal code, Ghaemi said.
Iran does not publish how many people are stoned or sentenced to stoning each year in Iran, but according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, six people were stoned to death between 2006 and 2008 and an additional 13 people await their sentence from Iranian prisons.
Though a Parliamentary committee in 2009 recommended the country ban the practice and some Islamic scholars argue there is no Koranic justification for stoning, the government of Iran continues the policy.
Following Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, stonings were large spectacles held in public spaces. Since the mid-1990s, however, stonings have been carried out in secret.
Ashtiani's case has become an international cause célèbre, with at least one foreign government, Brazil, offering to give the woman asylum.
Spotlight on Iran's Use of Stoning
Some analysts argue that if Iran were to stone Ashtiani it would cause more damage to its reputation than its alleged pursuit of a nuclear weapon.
"If they stone her, they will open the gates of a tsunami of condemnation, while they will make it much easier to gather consensus in the international community for stronger sanctions," said Meir Javedanfar, analyst and author of "Mahmoud Ahmedinejad: The Nuclear Sphynx of Iran."
"This is especially true in the EU [European Union]. People may or may not believe that Iran is making a nuke, but to stone a woman for adultery? Had Saddam done this the case against war in Iraq would have been a little easier to justify."