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Iranian Man and Woman on Death Row for Sex Outside of Marriage

November 8, 2021
Samaneh Ghadarkhan
4 min read
Iranian Man and Woman on Death Row for Sex Outside of Marriage

This Saturday it emerged that Branch 11 of Tehran Criminal Court had convicted a young man and woman of "adultery" and sentenced them to be stoned to death. On appeal, the Supreme Court changed their sentence to death by hanging.

The pair, a 27-year-old man and a 33-year-old woman named only as Meysam and Sareh, were arrested on December 24, 2020 after a complaint to police by Meysam’s wife. But shortly afterward the latter dropped the case, saying that she and Meysam had not been intimate for six months. Sareh also has a four-year-old son.

Beyond the obvious inhumanity the original and final death sentences, and quite apart from the fact that punishing sexual relations with the death penalty is contrary to international law and the Islamic Republic’s human rights obligations, this case has many implications even for Iranian domestic law. Article 226 of the Islamic Penal Code states that men and women can be stoned to death for adultery if they meet the conditions of ehsan: that is, they are married to someone of the opposite sex, who has reached puberty and is of sound mind, with whom they can have consensual sex when they want. If a person is not able to have sexual relations with their spouse, they cannot be stoned to death for adultery.

Iranian lawyer Saeed Dehghan notes that in this case, Meysam's wife "emphasized that they’d had trouble for six months, meaning that marital relations had not taken place between them. As such, according to Maryam, one of the defendants in this case has not committed adultery. And if he shouldn’t be stoned to death, he shouldn’t be executed either.

"Apart from the problem that our legal standards [in Iran] have a jurisprudential, religious basis, not a human and statutory basis, our other problem is that our citizens’ private relations have become such a public issue that consent makes no odds. Consent is seen as having no effect on ‘divine issues’.” Thus far, there’s been no indication that the authorities even talked to Sareh’s husband to establish the nature of their relationship.

Why the Sentence to Hanging?

Since 2013 Iranian judges can replace a sentence of stoning to death, as stipulated in the Islamic Penal Code, with execution by hanging at their discretion. Some jurists still believe the former is a divine form of meting out punishment and should be carried out. But others, such as Ayatollah Montazeri, once Ruhollah Khomeini’s right-hand man, argued that such practices should not take place during the "absence" (until the arrival of Imam Zaman, the 12th Shia Imam, who is said to be in hiding and whose eventual return will bring about Judgement Day). In 2002, then-Chief Justice of Iran Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi issued a moratorium on stoning. But it is still carried out, often inside prison compounds.

Stoning as the officially-sanctioned punishment for adultery was reaffirmed again in the 2013 Islamic Penal Code. Men and women who had sex outside of wedlock but do not meet the conditions of ehsan, the new code says, can be sentenced to up to 100 lashes. “In other words,” Dehghan says, “the stoning punishment is not applicable it can be replaced by flogging to maintain the cause of Islam. The main concern is not the human soul: it means the Sharia and Islam are superior to humanity.”

Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of the Oslo-based Iran Human Rights, told IranWire the only thing that will stop this barbaric practice for good in Iran is constant international pressure.  "After the campaign for Sakineh Mahmoudi Ashtiani [an Iranian women on death row, initially sentenced to death by stoning] in 2009, stoning was replaced by the death sentence.” He stressed that in Iran, stoning had “not been abolished in any way” but rather, “because of the high political cost for Iran in international forums and the pressure put on the country by Iran's allies, these rulings are issued less often.”

News of the case against Sareh and Meysam, Amiry-Moghaddam said, had already been shared by Iran Human Rights with the wider international community. "Countries with diplomatic relations with the Islamic Republic are calling on the Iranian government to suspend these executions without public announcement. They say they cannot make it public."

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