What was Ashtiani’s crime?
Four years ago, the 43-year-old mother of two was charged in an Iranian court with killing her husband. She denied any wrongdoing and was cleared of murder at trial. But three out of the five male judges in the Islamic court decided that she was guilty of adultery—her alleged lover was also charged in the murder—and they sentenced her to death by stoning. After her lawyer blogged about the case last month, human-rights activists, celebrities such as Robert Redford, and politicians including Sen. John Kerry began campaigning for her release. In the wake of the international outcry, Iranian authorities said earlier this month that Ashtiani would not be stoned—at least not immediately—but she remains in custody and could still be executed.

Is stoning a distinctly Islamic practice?
No. Stoning precedes Islam; it’s often cited in the Old Testament, which lists a number of crimes for which stoning is the designated punishment. But stoning fell out of use among ancient Jews and was renounced by Jesus in his famous rebuke to the Pharisees who brought him a “woman taken in adultery”: “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone.” Today, the few countries in which stoning remains legal—Iran, Somalia, Sudan, and Afghanistan—are Islamic. But some of the most vociferous anti-stoning advocates are Muslims who consider the practice both immoral and stigmatizing for the countries that permit it.

Does the Koran prescribe stoning for adultery?
No. The Koran merely states that adulterous wives should be “confined to their houses until death overtakes them,” and that for adultery to be proved, no fewer than four witnesses are required. But several hadiths—sayings attributed to the Prophet Mohammed after his death—have Mohammed prescribing the punishment. After Mohammed’s death, during the rule of the second caliph, stoning became codified as the means of an adulterer’s execution.

Has it long been used in Iran?
No. It was introduced only in 1983, after the Islamic Revolution, when the contemporary Islamic Penal Code was ratified. Under the code, stonings are to be carried out in public, with condemned prisoners buried up to their waists or chests before stones are hurled at their heads from 30 feet away. To prolong the torture, fundamentalist courts say the code requires that stones must “not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes, nor should they be so small that they cannot be called a stone.” Death can take up to half an hour, and the prisoners’ families are made to watch. There are numerous gruesome accounts of these provisions being enforced. In 1994, a woman in the city of Arak was blinded by a stoning, but stayed conscious and managed to free herself from the hole and stagger away. She was caught and shot to death.

How often does stoning occur?
In the 1980s and ’90s, hundreds of victims—mostly poor, illiterate Iranian women—are thought to have met their end in this way. In 2002, embarrassed by the outcry over the practice, the chief of Iran’s judiciary, Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, imposed a moratorium. But this was never translated into a formal amendment to the penal code, so stonings continued. Shiite jurisprudence, as interpreted by Iranian jurists, permits individual judges to sentence people to stoning despite the moratorium.
Are male adulterers also stoned?
Yes, but it’s exceedingly rare because of the unequal treatment of men and women in strict Islamic cultures. Men can take up to four wives, for example, while it’s almost impossible for a woman to divorce, in a culture in which many women have no say over whom they marry. While the law says women should be buried up to their necks prior to stoning, men are buried up to their waists, so they can sometimes work themselves free, at which point the sentence is commuted. Women are especially vulnerable to unfair trials, since they are much more likely to be illiterate and duped into signing confessions. And in the Islamic courts, overseen almost exclusively by male judges, a woman’s testimony is worth only half a man’s.
Why does the practice continue?
It’s one of several ways in which regimes control their populations. In Iran, many stoning sentences aren’t actually carried out, but the threat helps to deter opposition. Iranian officials are well aware that stoning generates international revulsion. But many observers think the timing of the announcement of Ashtiani’s execution—a month after the U.N. Security Council passed a fresh round of sanctions against Iran—was designed to signal Tehran’s indifference to the international community’s disapproval of its nuclear program and abysmal human-rights record. Despite the recent announcement that Ashtiani’s execution was on hold, rights advocates fear the worst. There are said to be as many as 50 Iranian women besides Ashtiani currently awaiting execution by stoning.

The ayatollahs’ forgotten victims
Most death-penalty cases in Iran do not become an international cause célèbre. Iran executed at least 388 people in 2009 and at least 126 people so far this year—more than any other country in the world other than China. Most are not stoned, but rather, are hanged. Human-rights organizations say there has been a significant increase in the use of the death penalty for the purpose of quashing dissent, a campaign that escalated following the disputed presidential election of June 2009. Supporters of women’s rights, ethnic minorities (notably Kurdish activists), journalists, union activists, students, and scholars have all been targeted, often on charges of moharebeh (“enmity against God”), which carries a death sentence. Iranian law states that anyone accused of moharebeh must be shown to have “taken up arms” against the state. But authorities often interpret this standard very loosely. In one recent case, judges sentenced to death a young man accused of throwing stones at a police car during an election protest.