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Frequently Asked Questions about Stoning

What is stoning?

Stoning, or lapidation, refers to a method of execution in which an organized group throws stones or rocks at the person they wish to execute. Although it takes many different forms, stoning has been used throughout history and in many religious and cultural traditions as a kind of community justice or capital punishment. For instance, the practice has been documented among the ancient Greeks to punish people judged to be prostitutes, adulterers or murderers. It is also documented in the Jewish Tradition via the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, and the Talmud, or Jewish Oral Law. In the Old Testament of the Bible, stoning is prescribed a method of execution for crimes such as murder, blasphemy or apostasy. Although there is no mention of stoning in the Quran, the practice has since grown to be associated with Islam and Muslim culture.

Is stoning still practiced? In which countries?

Yes. Stoning to death has been introduced as a legal form of punishment for the "adultery of married persons" (zina al-mohsena) in Afghanistan, Iran, Nigeria (about one-third of the 36 states), Pakistan, Sudan, and the United Arab Emirates. Some of these countries have since repealed the law of stoning. While the penalty has never been carried out in Nigeria, or by the state in either Pakistan or Iraq, incidents of stoning have been carried out by communities, seemingly encouraged by the existence of the punishment in law.

For what crime is stoning prescribed?

Stoning is largely prescribed, either by law or by custom/practice in particular communities, for the crime of "adultery of married persons" (zina al-mohsena). Adultery here applies to a sexual act where at least one of the parties is married to a third party. It does not include premarital sex or homosexual acts, although this too is illegal under most interpretations of Muslim laws.

How is “adultery” proven, before a stoning sentence is passed in the courtroom?

In states where stoning is codified in law (Iran, Nigeria, and the Sudan) adultery must be proven in court. According to many interpretations of Islamic Law (including the Iranian Penal Code), proving adultery is very difficult, and a guilty sentence is nearly impossible to obtain through hard evidence. Adultery punishable by stoning must be proven by the eye-witness testimony of either four just men (or three just men and two just women) or through four separate confessions by the defendant before a judge. But in fact, most stoning sentences in Iran are issued not on the basis of testimony or confession but on the judge’s “knowledge” or “intuition.” Article 105 of the Islamic Penal code of Iran allows a single judge to rule according to his personal opinion instead of hard evidence. As a result, most if not all adultery cases are unfairly tried. In Nigeria, pregnancy outside of a subsisting marraige has been taken as evidence of adultery by the woman -- however, since the acquittal of Amina Lawal, this is no longer the case.

Is stoning not already banned in Iran?

In 2002, the Head of the Judiciary of Iran, Ayatollah Shahroudi, mandated that stoning would no longer be practiced in Iran; but the laws were never officially removed from the penal code. As such, stoning sentences continue to be handed down by lower judges today, because all judges in Iran are obliged to follow the law over the order of a higher judge. Hence, Iran allows individual judges to pass a stoning sentence without checks and balances or the burden of proof. Only a change in law will stop stoning.

How is stoning carried out?

The Islamic Penal Code of Iran is very specific regarding the details of how stoning should be executed. Article 102 states that men shall be buried up to their waists and women up to their breasts for the execution. Article 104 states, referring to the penalty for adultery, that the stones used should “not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes; nor should they be so small that they could not be defined as stones (pebbles).” In some cases, if a victim can escape from the ditch during the stoning, they will be freed. However, because women are buried up to their breasts and men only at their waists, women will have a smaller chance of escaping than men.

Is stoning a tenet of “Islamic” law?

Stoning is a highly debated issue among Muslim religious clerics, and there is no consensus within the global Muslim community over the validity of the practice as “Islamic Law.” Although there is no mention of stoning in the Quran, many Muslim clerics cite instances in the Hadith, the acts and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, when discussing the legitimacy of the practice of stoning in Islam. Although the Quran (Surah al-Nur 24:2-9) only stipulates 100 lashes for adultery, the Prophet Muhammad reportedly had a number of men and women stoned in his time, which is taken as evidence for those who argue for the codifying of this punishment as Shariah, or Islamic Law. However, it is unclear whether these punishments were carried out before or after the revelation of the part of the Quran that mentions the punishment of adultery (Surah al-Nur). After the Prophet Muhammad’s death, the first generation of Muslim legal scholars included adultery as one of the six major offences in Islamic law for which the penalty is fixed by God and Quran (hudud). However, because the justification for stoning relies completely on the Hadith and not on the Quran, many scholars question its label as hudud, the very definition of such being “punishments mandated by God.” Such inconsistencies between the Hadith and Quran have been a source of confusion and remain controversial to this day.

Have Muslim authorities spoken out against stoning?

Many Muslim clerics, religious scholars, and political leaders have spoken out against the practice of stoning, deeming it “un-Islamic.” Just in Iran, Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, Ayatollah Yousef Saneii and Ayatollah Seyyed Mohamamd Mousavi Bojnourdi have all spoken out against the practice, among many others. Some Muslim clerics such as Ayatollah Hussein Mousavi Tabrizi argued that stoning should be stopped as a response to the demands of modern age. Others decry that any punishment, including stoning, that defames, embarrasses or depicts a bad picture of Islam is harmful to the religion and should be discontinued. Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, in her discussion of the practice, point out that many religious leaders see stoning as an “endorsement” law that can be changed, as opposed to a “constitutional” law; and that many other Muslim countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria do not condone stoning.

What is the relationship between stoning and human rights?

Stoning is a grave and serious violation of International Human Rights Law. Stoning breeches the International Convention of Civil and Political Rights (1966), to which Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and the Sudan are party signatories. Article 6 of the ICCPR states that “in countries which have not abolished the death penalty, sentence of death may be imposed only for the most serious crimes”, of which adultery is not one. Article 7 of the ICCPR states that "No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment." This last injunction is the content of a whole Convention: the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1987), which is widely considered to have reached the level of customary law due to its strong international acceptance by more than fifty nations, including many Muslim nations.

What is the relationship between stoning and women’s rights?

Women are far more likely to become victims of stoning. For example, of the ten cases of individuals awaiting punishment by stoning in Iran, nine are women. Similarly, all but one of those sentenced to stoning in Nigeria were women. Even though there is no article in law that mandates punishment by stoning exclusively for women, misogynist and discriminatory practices, interpretations and policies, make women far more likely than men to be found guilty of “adultery." In the Iranian Penal Code, a married woman has no right to divorce, a privilege which is reserved for the husband. Women have no custody rights of their children after age seven; as a result, women who can obtain a divorce by proving their husbands are either abusive or an addict, choose not to do so fearing the loss of their children. A man can marry up to four wives simultaneously, and may establish a sexual relationship with any other single woman through a temporary marriage without the requirements of marriage registration, ceremony, or obligation to any possible child that may result. In addition, a woman is legally obliged to submit to her husband’s sexual demands and do her best to satisfy him sexually. Hence if a man is sexually unsatisfied or in an unhappy relationship, he has many avenues open to him to dissolve the marriage and/or satisfy his sexual needs in a temporary “marriage.” However, these legal options are denied to Iranian women, and a woman seeking alternative intimate relationships is, in the eyes of the law, “committing adultery.” In Nigeria prior to 2003, the assumption that non-marital pregnancy is prima facie evidence of adultery by the women, without requiring any other form of evidence, was also discriminatory against women, since male partners were acquitted by simply taking oath that they were not guilty. Many similar discriminatory laws and regulations exist in other countries and communities where stoning is still practiced.

Shouldn’t we just accept stoning as part of someone’s culture and their right to freedom of belief?

There is no excuse for the killing of women in the name of any ‘religion’, ‘culture’ or ‘tradition’. ‘Religion’ and ‘culture’ cannot and must not be invoked as excuse for the killing of women, because religion and the laws which derive from it are always subjective interpretations. Culture is not static, but constantly re-created and re-defined by the various interests of groups in positions of power in a society at any given time. There is no excuse for the killing of women. Murder is a brutal violation of the most basic human right – the right to life – and any practice which harms women or impinges upon their agency and autonomy contradicts fundamental rights, such as the right to security; the right to freedom from violence; from inhuman, degrading treatment and punishment; from terror; the right to choose a marriage partner; and the right to not face discrimination under the law. As long as impunity exists, the misappropriation of culture and religion will continue to threaten women’s safety. No ‘culture’ has the right to kill and harm women based on their perceptions of morality or honour. The freedom of belief does not mean freedom to kill. Stoning is a brutal example of how culture and religion are being misused to perpetuate violence against women.

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