Stonings in Iran: killing in cold blood

One of the things you sometimes hear from those who support capital punishment is bitter critcism of people who “kill in cold blood”. They say things like: “I don’t think we should have it for all murders, but we should for child killers and people like poisoners who’ve clearly planned what they’re doing”.

The arguments vary. Some death penalty advocates say “cop killers” are a special category who should die, others say “we need it for terrorists”. Where people draw the lines seems to be arbitrary – apparently it’s for cases that they themselves feel are especially contemptible.

The “cold-blooded killers” argument is interesting. I’d argue that very few cases are actually that easy to neatly categorise. Is a poisoner necessarily a merciless, cold-hearted killer, or might they be a mentally ill person?  Could there be other mitigating circumstances – a woman who has suffered years of domestic violence; a case where the person didn’t intend to kill their victim but to injure them in some way?

Pro-capital punishment types tend to be hazy on the details over who exactly should get death rather than a prison sentence. The evidence from the USA and elsewhere (eg Saudi Arabia) is not that the “most heinous” criminals get executed, but that foreign nationals, racial minorities and those who can’t afford to pay for the best lawyers are the ones that go to their deaths in disproportionately high numbers. It’s a lethal lottery, and money and contacts help you avoid the hangman’s rope or the lethal injection chamber.

Meanwhile, it’s only right to say that cold-blooded killers do exist. There are people out there who do utterly disgusting things to other people, sometimes in a completely calculated way: from individual murderers to mass killers like Pol Pot or Idi Amin. But opposing the death penalty is a principled position, one you adopt because you believe in the sanctity of human life. It’s about wanting to deliberately separate yourself from the world’s killers. They’re calculated killers, we are not.

There’s an obvious irony to this. Capital punishment involves exactly that which it says it opposes: cold-blooded killing. What could be more calculated than setting a precise date and time for someone to be killed? A precise method. And a precise protocol, even down to things like last meals, witnesses, who can and can’t be present, final words, medics in attendance and all the rest.

There’s surely no clearer example of the calculated cruelty of capital punishment than the way that they carry out stonings in Iran. Article 104 of the Iranian penal code specifies that “The size of the stone used in stoning shall not be too large to kill the convict by one or two throws and at the same time shall not be too small to be called a stone." The idea is that the person must suffer as they die. And they do. Some stonings have apparently lasted for two hours. (Speaking of calculated cruelty, what about keeping someone on death row for over 40 years, as in Japan? Isn’t this a form of torture?)

But Iran’s judicial system seems to specialise in calibrating the cruelty to the smallest degree. There’s something bordering on lunacy about all this (the weirdly metaphysical phrase “not too small to be called a stone”. When is a stone not a stone?) and the Anglo-Iranian comedian Shappi Khorsandi has cleverly satirised it in a new short film. At the same time it’s all deadly real. There are currently at least 14 people facing this death in Iran, including the best known of them, Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani who could still be pummelled to death for the “offence” of adultery. You can support the Amnesty campaign to get the Iranian authorities to abolish stoning here (where you can also watch the Shappi film).

The next time someone tells you cold-blooded killers are the ones that deserve the death penalty, tell them about Iranian stonings. They say you can’t get blood from a stone – well in Iran they do precisely that. As long as it’s the right size stone.

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Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.
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