The formal word for it is lapidation. But most people know it as death by stoning. Until recently the extent of my knowledge on this extremely gruesome subject happened to be drawn from the world of comedy - a scene from the satirical film Monty Python’s Life of Brian, to be precise, when John Cleese, kitted out as a Roman official, hilariously tries to organize the stoning of a character known as Matthias by a group of women disguised as men. In keeping with the best traditions of Python humour, the script writers came up with a less than convincing legal defence for the prospective victim, who looked on bemused whilst shackled in chains throughout. ‘Look’, Matthias pleads, ‘All that happened was that I'd had a lovely supper and said to my wife ‘that piece of halibut was good enough for Jehovah’.

I was at my home in Montpellier, France, listening online to the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 when I heard the name Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani mentioned for the first time. It was during the summer of 2011. I could not believe my ears - that a 43 year old Iranian mother of two convicted of adultery had been sentenced to death by stoning. Suddenly the subject didn’t seem quite such a laughing matter. The same court in the north-western city of Tabriz had already seen to it that she receive 99 lashes, a punishment which her then teenage son Sajjad Mohammedie went out of his way to observe, reluctantly concluding that he could not leave his mother alone in the face of such suffering. There was an international outcry on Sakineh’s behalf. Not just in relation to the barbarity of the sentence imposed but because her confession was in fact no confession at all, having been extracted under duress and torture.

Of course you don’t need to spend vast amounts of time on Google to know that stoning is one of the cruellest forms of punishment to have been dreamed up in the whole of human history. But the more I read about it, the more I saw how brutal and sadistic it was, not least because the overwhelming majority of victims of stoning are women. During Rajm - Arabic for stoning - the condemned person is made to wear a white sheet before being buried in a hole in the ground. Males up to the waist, females to the chest. Rules and regulations also exist as to who can throw what and when: the stones should not be so big that they kill the victim quickly. But nor should they be too small either, pebbles are not allowed. The process of being tortured to death can then get underway. The object of the exercise could hardly be more clear - to kill the person gradually and with the utmost pain. Death can take up to an hour.

I joined a lobby group, the International Committee Against Stoning, which happens to be based in Germany, and I could hardly put my name down quickly enough as a signatory for the Save Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani Campaign. Recently I learned that her sentence had been commuted to death by hanging -the most bizarre ‘good news’ story I think I have ever heard. In a rather unsubtle attempt to counter the growing numbers of those campaigning for her release, she was even taken from her prison cell so that she could participate in a state-sponsored television reconstruction of the alleged murder of her husband, the programme being broadcast, somewhat bizarrely, on world Human Rights Day. In any event, her case is ongoing and many high profile people have, thankfully, given their backing to these campaigns. More recently the Iranian authorities have apparently stayed her execution indefinitely, in response to a highly effective international campaign. But she continues to languish in jail.

For one’s heart not to go out to the plight of Sakineh surely shows a lack of humanity and compassion. But her suffering unsettled me far more than I could have imagined. Was this because I had once been a visitor to Tabriz, Iran’s fourth largest city? I can still single out Tabrizi rugs to this day, identifiable by their ivory backgrounds with blue, rose and indigo motifs. Thinking of Tabriz led me inexorably to Tehran - the Iranian capital which had once been my home. And Tehran in turn took me to Talar Roudaki, formerly Iran’s premier centre for the performing arts and where, for some years, I was employed by the Iranian National Ballet. My background and training is rooted firmly in classical dance. So dancey, in fact, that it is now a matter of some regret that I paid little attention to academic study. But for some reason I have always retained the words of the German Jewish essayist Kurt Tocholsky, that a country is not only what it does but also what it tolerates. On that litmus test of liberality the current regime in Iran should surely hang its head in shame. With all forms of public dance banned in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution, Talar Roudaki now serves as a centre for Islamic gatherings. I am sure that Sakineh might also have something to say, given the opportunity, about the regime’s lack of respect for the most basic human right of all - the right to life. Whatever the case, reading about Sakineh and campaigning on her behalf was taking me swiftly back to Iran, a country whose culture, language and people I had come to love. Although imprisoned and languishing on death row, it was as if she were accompanying me on a return trip to Talar Roudaki, a bizarre fusion of present and past. I remember getting on that jumbo jet and flying out to Tehran as if it were yesterday. Even though it was four decades ago.

All rights reserved :
Crafted by: