Page last updated at 08:35 GMT, Tuesday, 17 August 2010 09:35 UK

Lawyer says Iran stoning woman 'will not be executed'

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Iranian lawyer in exile in Norway, Mohammed Mostafaei, condemns the practice of stoning in his country.

By Stephen Sackur
Presenter, BBC HARDtalk

The Iranian lawyer who publicised the case of the Iranian woman condemned to death by stoning has talked to the BBC about the case, after being given asylum in Norway.

Mohammed Mostafaei looks surprisingly unruffled for a man whose life has been turned upside down.

He greets me in the foyer of an Oslo hotel with a firm handshake and a burst of dark humour.

"I must be crazy," he says in Farsi. "Last month I was being interrogated by Iranian intelligence. Now I'm agreeing to be interrogated by you."

Norway is a safe haven for Mostafaei after a long and agonising journey.

For years he has been one of Tehran's highest-profile human rights lawyers, specialising in the defence of prisoners, especially juveniles, facing the death penalty.

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani (file photo)
Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani says she was forced to confess to adultery

A year ago he took on the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old woman sentenced first to 99 lashes and then to death by stoning, for adultery.

In June Mostafaei wrote about her case on his blog. He then gave a series of interviews to Western news organisations, highlighting her imminent and brutal end. Within days human rights organisations and politicians around the world were mounting a campaign to have her life spared.

The official reaction in Tehran was a mix of damage limitation and targeted retribution.

Family arrests

It was announced that Mohammadi Ashtiani would not, after all, be stoned to death, though her death sentence was not overturned. At the same time Mostafaei was called into Tehran's Evin prison for questioning, then released.

Hours later his wife and his brother-in-law were detained and a warrant was issued for Mostafaei's arrest.

The lawyer then took a fateful decision. Rather than surrender to the authorities he chose to flee. He headed for the Turkish border and exile.

After days of incarceration and legal wrangling in Istanbul, Mostafaei was offered residency by the Norwegian government. His wife was released from her solitary confinement in Evin prison.

So Mostafaei is now in a delicate position - desperate for his wife and seven-year-old daughter to be re-united with him in Norway, but determined not to be intimidated into silence by the regime in Tehran.

"I hope they will be able to travel here very soon," he says of his family.

TV 'lies'

Iran's state media has portrayed Mostafaei as a Western puppet, seeking personal profit and asylum in the West by manipulating the Mohammadi Ashtiani case.

I risked my life to get out, because I was sure it was the right thing to do"
Mohammed Mostafaei

The prisoner herself was filmed by Iranian state television, apparently acknowledging both an illicit relationship with her husband's cousin, and involvement in her husband's murder. She also condemned Mostafaei's decision to publicise her plight.

"He had no right to disgrace me," she said in the broadcast.

The lawyer himself responds carefully to his client's hesitant television appearance.

"Most of what was aired was mere lies. The programme makers had two objectives. One, to ruin and humiliate well-known individuals. Second, to justify the acts of those who abuse their power."

"I have not received even a penny on human rights-related issues. I worked sincerely. I discuss every issue with my clients. My aim is to save them."

Mostafaei says his long campaign for human rights and respect for the rule of law will continue, whether he's inside Iran or in exile.

But when I ask him what it has been like, separated from his wife and daughter, unsure of their fate, his calm exterior crumbles.

"When I talk about my daughter it's too much," he says, his cheeks shining with tears.

I ask him if he ever regrets his decision to leave Tehran. He shakes his head. "I risked my life to get out," he says, "because I was sure it was the right thing to do."

Given the international scrutiny now on Tehran's use of the death penalty in general and stoning in particular he claims to be confident that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani will not now be executed.

"Sakineh Mohammadi will be rescued," he says, "I am sure about it. And her case will help others to be rescued too."

You can watch the full interview with Mohammed Mostafaei on Tuesday 17 August 2010 on BBC World News at 0330, 0830, 1530, 2030 GMT and on the BBC News Channel at 0430 and 2330 BST.



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