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Saving Sakineh with Signatures

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In the past two years, we've all learned that citizens as much governments must do more than pay lip service to ideals. It's necessary that individual investors ask questions of our financial advisors. It's imperative that drivers switch to fuel-efficient transport.

And it's urgent that citizens step up to affirm universal human rights. Urgent not only because lives are on the line, but also because the more interdependent countries become, the more offense they take at "official" statements about human rights.

We, jurors in the court of public opinion, are the only ones who can confidently risk offending regimes for the sake of universal human justice. We have that duty right now.

Last week, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Iranian, became the symbol of a hideous practice that her government inflicts on its people: death by stoning.

In a 21st-century version of burning heretics at the stake, stoning victims get draped in pristine white sheets, lowered into freshly dug dirt pits and accosted with fist-sized rocks. The hurling is hard enough to inflict pain, but not so hard as to kill immediately. As Amnesty International puts it, stoning is "specifically designed to increase the suffering of its victims."

Thursday, the Iranian regime reacted to a worldwide citizens' campaign by announcing that Sakineh will no longer face stoning - but remains subject to execution. The press release didn't clarify by what means.

None of us should settle for this shallow response. The fact is, Iran's regime lies about stoning. At the World Economic Forum in 2005, I publicly confronted the country's then vice-president, Masoumeh Ebetakar, about this hideous practice. She assured me that Iran proclaimed a moratorium on it. Yet human rights watchdogs continue to document cases of the brutality.

The cases themselves tend to be built on a pile of indignities. Consider the allegation against Sakineh: adultery. The charge is manifestly trumped up and the investigation has been stacked from the get-go. Moreover, she has already submitted herself to lashings -- ninety-nine of them.

Why the indescribably gratuitous threat to pulverize the life out of her, too? Why any kind of a death penalty for her? And even if Sakineh is completely spared because of the international spotlight, what will happen to the other women and men (mostly women) who are sentenced to the savagery of stoning?

This fight isn't over.

A global group of entrepreneurs, authors, artists and humanitarians has formed to take the fight a step further. We've launched a website that allows citizens of every country to send a crystal-clear message to Iranian authorities: We're watching and we won't let you off the hook. Treating Sakineh as an emblem for all who are subject to stoning, the website address is www.freesakineh.org.

How could your signature help eradicate stoning? To begin, the petition is being sent not just to Iranian officials, but also the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner. The UN is Iran's cherished playground. Shaming the regime there could go far to tipping the scales.

No doubt, some people will scoff that Sharia (Islamic) law won't be influenced by secular cries for human rights. But Iran subscribes to Shia Islam, which was born of dissent. As minorities in the Sunni-dominated Muslim world, Shia clerics and thinkers don't always reject the idea that human interpretations of divine will are exactly that -- human. If exposed by more international outrage, Iranian arbiters could invoke Shia tradition to ban stoning once altogether.

Others will argue that Western involvement will be spun as interference, complicating the work of anti-stoning campaigners on the ground. It's true that outcries from the outside sometimes hurt. But in Iran, activists say that Western pressure works. Indeed, the Iranian human rights icon and Nobel peace laureate, Shirin Ebadi, advises us to "make as much noise as possible."

Clearly, worldwide concern has mattered over the past few days. Still, let's not be fooled. A public relations victory for Iran's rulers isn't the goal. Sustained respect for human dignity is. That's the simple message of your signature.

This post originally appeared in The Globe and Mail.