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Interview: Sakineh's Attorney Speaks From Exile

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Until a few days ago, Mohamad Mostafaei was Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtian's attorney. In addition to his profession, he was one of the free voices of Iran and one of its consciences. Harassed by the mollahs, imprisoned several times, subject to unbearable moral blackmail every time his wife and daughter were threatened, he finally left his country. He answered my questions from a hotel room in Oslo, where he found refuge yesterday, Sunday. Either directly, in English, or with the help of Mahmood Amiry-Mohgad, founder and activist of the NGO "Iran Human Rights", based in Norway. A clear voice. A lucid mind. His capacity to resist manifestly untouched. The man who does not flinch or waver. He continues the fight. But, for this, he needs us more than ever. Listen to him. It is the first time he has expressed himself since leaving Iran.

Bernard-Henri Lévy

BHL: Good evening, Mr. Mostafaei. I am very moved to be speaking with you. Where are you, exactly?

M. Mostafei: For the moment, I'm in a hotel room in Oslo.

How did you leave Iran?

I crossed the frontier between Iran and Turkey. Five hours on foot. Then on horseback.

And then, in Turkey?

I arrived at the city of Van. Humanitarian organisations such as Amnesty International took my case in hand. We wrote to the Turkish government. They had me take a plane for Istanbul. And I spent six days there, three at the police station at the airport, and three in a detention center for foreigners whose papers are not in order. Thanks to the intervention of some people from the UN, the European Union, and the Norwegian government, I was able to come to Oslo.

What is your state of mind right now?

Exhausted, but combative. I would have preferred to have remained in Iran, of course, to continue the fight for Sakineh and for human rights in my country. But they would have arrested me. Or worse still, they would have kept my wife in prison.

Because your wife has been released from prison?

Yes, naturally. They were only holding her to compel me to give myself up. The instant I touched Norwegian soil and they understood they couldn't catch me, they set her free. After fourteen days of being locked up, in severe conditions.

One thing is striking, in this affair concerning Sakineh: the hounding of a woman who, after all...

That's true. They have pursued her relentlessly in every possible way. First of all, there was the sentencing to be stoned. She lived with this nightmare, this sword of Damocles over her head. And now, since the Islamic Republic of Iran, disturbed by the international mobilisation, seems to hesitate to apply the verdict and is considering transforming it into hanging, Sakineh is waiting. And it's another form of torture.

Yes. But why her? Why this determination to go after her in particular?

She is a symbol. She is the symbol of all Iranian women who are victims of the family, the society, of their discriminatory laws.

Seen from the outside, this affair sometimes seems very obscure. Of what, exactly, is she being accused?

Concretely, she was condemned to 99 lashes of a whip for "immoral relations" with a man while her husband was alive. After the murder of her husband, she was sentenced to ten years imprisonment for complicity. And, at the same moment, another tribunal rejudged her case for so-called adultery and condemned her, this time, to death by stoning. Obviously, there is not a word of truth in all that. No proof. No confession. But, when the case was judged, three of the five judges declared her guilty simply on the basis of their own intimate conviction. All three of them were clerics. And particularly fanatical clerics.

What kind of a woman is she?

A simple woman. A very simple woman. For example, she speaks little Farsi. She speaks Azari.

Is that why she did not understand the verdict of stoning when it was announced? We are told that she understood it only after she had returned to her cell and her cellmates explained it to her.

No. That's something else. It's because the word the judges used was "rajam," the Arab word that means stoning.

Strange that one would use an Arab word....

That's true. But it's the rule. It is this word, this Arab word, that is used in the Iranian penal system. And it is this word that she did not comprehend.

What, according to you, is happening in these televised images where we see her, almost entirely covered by a veil, confessing to her supposed crimes. First of all, is it she?

Personally, I have not seen the images. But, in all probability yes, it's she.

Was this confession extorted from her under torture?

Yes, that is what I have heard. That she was subjected to, let's say, very strong pressure. And that she was forced to say what she did.

Who is the attorney who took over for you? Did the family choose him? Or was he assigned by the court?

I do not know Mr. Javid Kian. I don't know if he was designated counsel by the authorities or by the family.

Is Sakineh's case exceptional? Are there similar cases? What are the latest cases of stoning you have heard of or that have been submitted to you?

I have had thirteen clients who were sentenced to death by stoning. For ten of them, I either won the appeal or succeeded in having the sentence commuted to lashing by whip. Three of them are pending...

To your knowledge, when was the last stoning actually carried out?

The last case I can recall was that of Jafar Kiani, stoned to death in Takestan in the summer of 2007. But the human rights defense organisations in Iran have documented others. A man in the city of Rasht, in March, 2009. Three others, at Mashad, in December, 2008--one of them succeeded in getting out of the hole and thus saved his own life.

You are known for having attracted the international community's attention, all the way from Iran, to the case of Mohammad-Reza Haddadi and, now, to that of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani. Is this kind of mobilisation a good thing?

Yes, of course. We cannot always see the effects immediately. But, in more or less long range terms, there's no doubt. It is capital.

Then you don't agree with those who say it is more effective to act behind the scenes?
No. Both of them are necessary.

What do the Iranian authorities think of these campaigns? How do they react?

They don't like them. But they cannot ignore them. These past several years, for example, I have kept a running account, by blog, of some of the typical cases I have pleaded. The authorities systematically block these blogs. So I open others.

What can we do, today, to help you, to help Sakineh, to help Iranian women fighting against obscurantism?

To begin with, what we're doing here. Talk. Tell things. Explain that the violation of human rights in Iran deserves at least as much attention as the question of military nuclear energy.

Will you come to say this in Paris?

I will be in Germany next week. But, why not, yes, after that, in France?

Well, we will be waiting for you.