Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

T'aint the evidence, 'tis the regime

By Jonathan Simon

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani

Iran's increasingly desperate efforts to legalize the upcoming execution of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani in the face of growing world (and one assumes domestic) disgust, opens a fascinating window into how a fascist dictatorship governs through crime. According to William Wong and Robert F. Worth's reporting in the NY Times, the regime has now broadcast a documentary which includes a "confession" or sorts by Ashtiani along with prosecutors who explain the alleged murder plot in more detail than has previously be published.

Ms. Ashtiani, 43, did not confess to murder in the video. Instead, sitting in a chair and clutching a piece of paper in her left hand, she told an interviewer with a microphone how a man had “tricked me with his words” and then killed her husband by electrocuting him. She spoke in Azeri, with a Persian-language voice-over, and her face was deliberately blurred in an oddly incongruous effort to protect her identity. A subtitle introduced her as “S. A.,” with the words “The case of murder tainted with immorality.”

After Ms. Ashtiani’s statement, a white-turbaned cleric identified as the lead prosecutor in East Azerbaijan, the area in northwest Iran where the trial took place, appeared and said Ms. Ashtiani had injected her husband “with an anesthetic shot, which made him unconscious.”

A couple things are noteworthy here. One, the Iranian regime conducts public executions all the time (they are the world's second largest executor following China) but rarely if ever makes its legal procedures visible in any way. While maintaining its general tone of defiance toward world opinion (as befits a regime that believes it acts with the direct sanction of Allah), the regime's efforts to put together a public legal foundation for its actions (however ad hoc and after the fact) suggests that both internal and external legitimation are a political problem for it (i.e., they understand that Allah isn't enough to keep them in power).

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani
Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani

Second, the regime is showing increasing sensitivity not just to global public opinion, but to features of modernization in the political logic of punishment itself. Having originally been prepared to stone Ashtiani to death on charges of adultery, the regime has been stung by global media attention to that particularly offensive mixture of execution method and rationale. They have back pedaled by "upgrading" her execution method to hanging, and switching rationales for the execution from adultery, accepted only the Islamic world as grounds for the death penalty, to murder, which remains along with treason the only grounds for execution acceptable to those Western nations that retain the death penalty (basically just the Great Satan, the US).

The fact that global criticism has reacted so strongly to this case is interesting in its own right and suggests some of the biases of media sensitivity. The regime has conducted numerous public hangings of young men on charges of "making war on Allah"—  i.e., protesting against the regime — without much world public reaction. Women remain the subject of a chivalric logic of sentiment which accords greater emotional reaction to state violence against them. Likewise, adultery, with its salacious implications, generates far more interest than political crimes.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s Governing through Crime site.