Ashtiani has been living under the shadow of the most unimaginable threat, that of being buried up to her neck and stoned to death for the “crime” of adultery.
Forty-three-year-old Ashtiani was sentenced to death by stoning after being found guilty in 2006 of having a relationship outside marriage; she has always maintained her innocence. She had already endured 99 lashes when she was condemned according to “judge’s knowledge”, a practice which allows judges to pass down rulings even where there is no conclusive evidence.
International condemnation has rained down on Iran after Ashtiani’s 22-year-old son and 17-year-old daughter bravely spoke out, and it has apparently had the effect of having the sentence withdrawn. On Thursday night, the Iranian embassy in London let it be known that Ashtiani would not, after all, be stoned to death. However, it remains unclear whether her life is still in danger.
The campaign is far from over.
Iran’s excessive use of the death penalty, a judicial system open to abuse and the use of this most savage of sentences, have all come under scrutiny as a result of Ashtiani’s case. Iran is a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which requires states that use the death penalty to restrict it to “the most serious crimes”. Iran is clearly in breach of its obligations.
But, for now, efforts must be focused on securing the safe release of Ashtiani, who has spent five years in prison without cause, faced with the most horrific of fates.
Concerned governments and individuals around the world must continue to put pressure on Iran to end the barbaric practice of stoning and the use of capital punishment, and, in particular, to free Ashtiani without delay.
Public stoning the most repulsive form of capital punishment
But there is. Over the past decade, Iran, Pakistan, Somalia and Nigeria have all publicly executed people by stoning.
And Sunday is the day when, worldwide, people are being urged to gather stones and take them to public gathering places with messages to stop this barbaric practice.
On Friday, the Women's Action Forum in Lahore expressed outrage at reports that a Pakistani man and woman have been sentenced to death by stoning for having had "illicit relations."
Also on Friday, and after a week of intensive international pressure including pleas from Canada, the European Union, other governments and a wide array of human rights groups, the Iranian government commuted Sakine Mohammadi Ashtiani's death by stoning.
What remains unclear is whether the 43-year-old mother of two will be killed by some other means.
Ashtiani has been in jail since her arrest in 2006 following her husband's murder. She was convicted of having had "an illicit relationship."
Under Iran's strict interpretation of Shariah law, the penalty was 99 lashes.
Her husband's murder case was subsequently reopened and, while Ashtiani was absolved of his murder, she was convicted of having committed adultery before her husband's death. According to the Guardian newspaper, the judge invoked the "judge's knowledge" rule that allows convictions without conclusive evidence of a crime.
Although both men and women have been stoned to death, the penalty is disproportionately given to women.
Women are buried up to their shoulders; men are buried to their waists.
The spectators are then invited to throw rocks that, by law, must be large enough to cause pain, but not so large that one or two of them can kill.
It's torture that can last as long as 20 minutes.
There is one faint hope clause: If you can escape, you can live.
Iran reinstated this public torture after the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
In the last decade, at least 12 Iranian women and a handful of men have been stoned to death. As many as 50 may be in prison awaiting death, according to human rights groups.
Among them are two other women in the same jail as Ashtiani -- Marian Ghorbanzadeh, 25, and Azar Bagheri, 19, who was arrested at 15 and has already been subjected to mock stonings.
This is communal killing; terrorism committed by a government on its own people.
"Stoning to death is not simply a judicial punishment," Mina Ahadi, who fled an Iranian death sentence almost 30 years ago, told the Guardian.
"It's a political means in the hands of the Iranian regime to threaten people. It has more function than just a simple punishment for them."
Stoning to death may be the most vile and repugnant form of execution, but it is far from the only one.
Although there are no reports of stoning there, China leads the world in executions with more than 1,000 a year.
Amnesty International ranks Iran second with 388 last year, most of them hangings.
Every international convention condemns executing minors (including at least one that Iran has ratified).
Yet, on Friday the fate of 19-year-old Mohammad Reza Haddadi rested in the hands of a victim's family.
He's one of at least 135 juvenile offenders on Iran's death row, having confessed at 15 to murder after he was hanged from a tree and beaten.
Pleas to commute his death sentence were made by many of the same countries (Canada included) in concert with those to spare Ashtiani from stoning.
Among those asking for Haddadi's clemency is Iranian Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi.
The former judge, who was dismissed following the Islamic Revolution, has represented the family of slain Canadian photo-journalist Zahra Kazemi, as well as several murderers whose confessions were forced from them.
Ebadi has asked the victim's family to go to the Islamic Court and ask that Haddadi's life be spared. They are considering it.
Public pressure saved Ashtiani from death by stoning this week. But it may have only spared her for some other cruel and inhumane punishment.
Iran is one of the 139 nations (including the United States) that have retained the death penalty.
So place a rock in a public space Sunday, but consider the message.
Rather than demanding that stoning be stopped, wouldn't it be better to demand an end to all death penalties in every country?
But Sakineh still faces hanging, and today, fifteen more people await execution by stoning -- people are buried up to their necks and large rocks are hurled at their heads.
Sakineh's brave children's international campaign shows that worldwide condemnation works. Let's turn this family's desperate appeal into a movement that ends stoning for good - sign the petition and send to everyone::
We call on you to finally put an end to capital punishment by stoning and to reverse the unjust judgment in the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani.
Human rights activists had been quick to rally to the cause of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was convicted in 2006 of adultery and, according to reports Iran is now contesting, due to join a grim roster. "At least 50 women were stoned to death between 1986 and 1997, according to the International Committee Against Stoning," reports the Australian. "There have been at least half a dozen cases since 2006 and at least 10 Iranians sentenced to stoning are still thought to be on death row, despite a moratorium declared by the judiciary in 2002." (It's been known to happen in Nigeria and Saudi Arabia, too.)
But is stoning any more barbaric than lethal injection? True, lethal injection is a more modern form of execution, first implemented in Texas in 1982. The typical procedure is to inject the condemned with a three drugs, sequentially. The first, sodium thiopental, is an anasthetic. The second, pancuronium, causes muscle paralysis. And the third, potassium chloride, induces cardiac arrest.
But the first drug is short-lasting, and the second serves to make it easier for people to watch a person die, not make dying less painful; critics point out that pancuronium is not used by veterinarians when they euthanize animals. The condemned can suffer tremendously, all the time having his suffering masked by the paralytic agent. Additionally, many of the administrators of lethal injection are not well-trained in it, and can cause the condemned undue suffering. "It never occurred to me when we set this up that we'd have complete idiots administering the drugs," said Jay Chapman, who created lethal injection.
At least in stoning, the victim's pain is not masked. Which is not an argument for stoning, or any method of execution, but rather an argument against the death penalty itself. It's not just that innocents are often sent to die, it's that the penalty, no matter how administered -- or where administered -- is inhumane.