New photos raise false hopes in Sakineh saga

Photographs of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani released Thursday night sparked reports that the Iranian woman, sentenced to be stoned to death, had been released. But Iranian state TV denied the reports in the latest twist in a confusing case.


The photographs of a middle-aged Iranian woman sitting in what appeared to be a comfortable Iranian middle-class living room smiling at a young, bearded man sparked a rash of reports Thursday evening, which fuelled international hopes that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani would escape a gruesome death by stoning. But by Friday, those hopes were dashed as the confusion surrounding those seemingly upbeat pictures cleared.

Confusion has surrounded the fate of Ashtiani, a 43-year-old Iranian mother condemned to death by stoning for adultery, since the international community launched a high-profile campaign for her release.

The Sakineh story took a befuddling turn late Thursday when a German-based campaign group proclaimed victory after photographs of Ashtiani at home with her son, Sajad, were released by the Iranian state-run Press TV.

The images, which feature Ashtiani in the black manteau, favoured by many urban Iranian women, topped with a neat beige veil in her home in the north-western town of Osku, were published on a number of international news sites, including that of the AFP news wire service.

The AFP wire also ran Thursday night on the France 24 website shortly before being removed. The websites of the leading Italian daily, La Republica, and the British daily, The Guardian, also initially picked up the story, which quickly spread across the airwaves.

But on Friday morning, Press TV vehemently denied reports of her release.

The photographs were apparently taken by a TV production team who accompanied Ashtiani to her home "to recount details of killing of her husband at the crime scene".

Ashtiani has appeared on Iranian state TV before, confessing to adultery and complicity in the murder of her husband. Her lawyer, however, maintains the televised confessions were forced by torture.

The latest program, for which a Press TV team followed Ashtiani to her Osku home, is slated to be aired Friday at 20:35 GMT, according to the Press TV Web site.

Press TV criticised as ‘a wing of the intelligence services’

In its story titled “Ashtiani recounts murder on Press TV”, the state-run English news service blasts the international media for misreporting the story.

"Contrary to a vast publicity campaign by Western media that confessed murderer Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has been released, a broadcast production team with the Iran-based Press TV has arranged with Iran's judicial authorities to follow Ashtiani to her house to produce a visual recount of the crime at the murder scene," Press TV said on its website.

The twists and turns, including the muddled reporting on the Ashtiani case, demonstrate the growing isolation of the Iranian regime and its official media as the international campaign for her release   aided by social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter   gathers steam.

Reports of Ashtiani’s release Thursday evening quickly spread across the Internet, with messages celebrating her release flooding the Twitter website in numerous languages.

But a day later, the euphoria among human rights campaigners had turned into a rage   against the regime and Press TV.

“The question is how come an outlet that is supposed to be a media outlet had access to a prisoner, took her out for three days in order to reconstruct the murder of her husband in an attempt to stitch her up with murder charges,” said Maryam Namazie, a spokeswoman for Iran Solidarity, a London-based rights group. “Press TV is perceived to be part of the media, it’s obviously not. The media is acting as a wing of the intelligence services of the Iranian government.”

Press TV representatives did not respond to repeated attempts by FRANCE 24 to reach them by phone.

Contradictory remarks by Iranian officials

While Iranian officials say the Ashtiani case is purely a matter for the judiciary, senior officials have periodically issued contradictory statements about it.

In a September interview with a US TV station, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad denied she was ever sentenced to death by stoning.

Last month, Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of the Iranian High Council for Human Rights, told Press TV that there was a good chance of saving Sakineh’s life.

The Iranian mother was sentenced to death by two different courts in the north-western city of Tabriz in separate trials in 2006.

A sentence to hang for her involvement in the murder of her husband was commuted to a 10-year jail term by an appeals court in 2007.

But a second sentence to death by stoning on charges of adultery levelled over several relationships, notably with the man convicted of her husband's murder, was upheld by another appeals court the same year.

International pressure for a pardon mounted in October after Ashitani’s son was arrested with two reporters from the German newspaper Bild am Sonntag who interviewed him in Tabriz. Her current lawyer, Javid Houtan Kian, was also briefly detained.

The German government has been pushing for the release of the two German reporters over Christmas as a goodwill gesture.

Several Western governments as well as the Vatican have called for a pardon, which has so far been rejected by the Iranian regime.

Despite the latest twist in a confusing, controversial tale, international rights campaigners say they are not giving up hopes of securing Ashtiani’s release. “We are not despairing,” said Namazie. “All those joyful messages and those messages of hope show that public opinion is supporting her. We’re not giving up.”

(Photograph: Press TV Web site)


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