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Escape to Norway: Iranian Anti-Stoning Lawyer Continues Fight from Exile

By in Oslo

Human rights lawyer Mohammad Mostafaei, who represented Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, was forced to flee Iran after the authorities became determined to silence him. Speaking to SPIEGEL from his exile in Norway, he talked of his plans to continue the fight to save Ashtiani.

It's time to pack his suitcases again, vacate his attic room and move on to the next place. Mohammad Mostafaei, 37, is exhausted, and even a cold shower isn't enough to wake him up. But at least Mostafaei has a suitcase now, after being on the run for almost three weeks. All he carried while crossing the mountains into Turkey on foot was a small backpack, just big enough for his laptop and a change of underwear.

Mostafaei, an Iranian lawyer and human rights activist who has already become an international human rights cause himself, is now sitting with his few belongings in a small hotel in the Norwegian capital Oslo, wondering what happens next.

What will happen to his wife Fereshteh, 32, and his daughter Parmida, 7, who he left behind in Tehran? Shortly after he disappeared, the regime's thugs took his wife and her brothers into custody temporarily. And what will happen to his client Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, whose cause he had championed with such enthusiasm? Ashtiani was sentenced to death by stoning for the crime of adultery, but her sentence was commuted to hanging after international protests.

No Regrets

Mostafaei rubs his bloodshot eyes and holds his teacup tightly in his hands. He doesn't have much to hold onto -- except the certainty that the Iranian judges were determined to silence him. He had become a thorn in their sides, and they had grown weary of his sharp criticism of their political sentences and archaic punishments.

In his diary, excerpts of which were published by SPIEGEL in June, he criticized stoning, the death penalty for adultery in Iran. Soon afterwards, he voiced his support for an international campaign in solidarity with Ashtiani, but it was a step too far for the authorities. Even now, alone in exile, Mostafaei says he doesn't regret his efforts on behalf of his client.

He was only allowed to visit her once at the prison where she was being held, in the northern Iranian city of Tabriz. It is a rundown facility, where Ashtiani shares cell number four with 25 other women. But even the poor conditions at the prison, says Mostafaei, are easier for her to endure than her former marriage. He calls it a "silent martyrdom" and says that his client, who he calls by her first name, Sakineh, was treated "like a slave." According to Mostafaei, she became filled with "hate" and was motivated by "hopelessness." And because of the "backward divorce laws" in Iran, separation was practically inconceivable for someone like Sakineh.

In fact, Iranian divorce law is legalized discrimination. While men can readily petition for divorce in Iranian courts, women are required to provide convincing grounds. A woman has to prove that her husband is missing, refuses to support her or is "harassing" her -- through acts of violence, for example. "In Iran, there are many women like Sakineh, who are at the mercy of their husbands," says Mostafaei.

Throwing the First Stone

He client chose a disastrous way out of her suffering: She secretly sought comfort with someone else, a man named Nasser. Eventually, the husband must have noticed that she was having an affair, and he notified the government's moral police. His efforts were successful. Sakineh was arrested during a rendezvous with Nasser and another man. The encounter provided the authorities with sufficient evidence to try Sakineh for the crime of "rabete namashroo," or prohibited intercourse. Sakineh was given 99 lashes for her so-called crime. The unmarried men were not treated as harshly. Nasser received 40 lashes and the second man 20.

When her husband suddenly died, it seemed that Sakineh's life could take a turn for the better. But the police were suspicious. Her children -- her son Sajjad, 22, and her daughter Farideh, 17 -- suspected Nasser of having murdered their father. They urged the authorities to investigate their father's death, but they had no idea that in doing so they were essentially throwing the first stone at their mother.

Not only did the investigators conclude that Nasser had indeed killed their father, they also decided, according to Mostafaei, that Sakineh had aided and abetted her lover. She had supposedly given her husband a sedative so that Nasser could then inject him with poison, says the attorney. According to another version, Nasser, with Sakineh's support, planned to kill the husband by electrocuting him.

To protect their mother, Sajjad and Farideh forgave her for acting as an accessory to the murder. In doing so, they were utilizing a unique feature of Islamic law, which holds that the punishment for a crime must be reduced if the victim or the victim's family forgives the perpetrator.

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