Iranian state TV broadcasts "confession" by woman sentenced to stoning

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, her son, laywer, and two foreign journalists confess to "lies".

In the latest development in the case of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, Iranian state television has broadcast confessions by the woman sentenced to death by stoning for adultery, as well as her son, lawyer, and two foreign journalists.

The programme attempted to cast Mina Ahadi, an activist for the German-based International Committee Against Stoning as the villain of the piece, for her role in spreading the story around the world.

In her third television appearance since the case drew world attention, Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, said that she was guilty of the murder of her husband -- a crime of which she was previously acquitted in court. "I am a sinner," she said. In the past, she has said that she made confessions under duress.

It also featured her 22 year old son, Sajjad Qaderzadeh, and her lawyer, Houton Kian, who were both arrested last month.

Her son said:

He [Kian] told me to say she [Mohammadi Ashtiani] was tortured ... Unfortunately, I listened to him and told lies to the foreign media.

I'm full of regret. I think if I had not known the two lawyers ... the case would have gone through its normal course.

Kian repeated this:

Telling lies to foreign media was my recommendation to Sajjad.

It is a sad reversal Qaderzadeh, who fearlessly spoke out about his mother's case, despite the awareness that it could lead to his imprisonment and torture. Back in August, he said: "Our last option was to ask people of the world to help us."

Two Germans arrested last month while allegedly trying to interview Mohammadi Ashtiani's family also appeared. They both reiterated the accusation against Ahadi, an Iranian human rights activist living in exile in Germany.

One said:

I didn't know anything about this issue. But Ms. (Mina) Ahadi knew about it and since she could benefit from the propaganda on my arrest, she sent me to Iran.

I will surely file a complaint against her when I return to Germany.

The other concurred:

I agree that I made a mistake because I was unaware and I was deceived by Ms. Ahadi.

It's been confirmed that the two journalists -- identified only as a reporter and a photographer -- will be charged with spying. They have been held without charge since 10 October.

It is likely that these "confessions" are the attempt of the Iranian government to counter the international outcry over the case. Blaming western powers for stirring up conflict is a default position for Tehran, as we saw during the democracy protests in 2008. Indeed, in light of this belligerent position, and Iran's already fraught relationship with the international community, it is vital that international pressure is executed carefully. That there has been a delay in carrying out Mohammadi Ashtiani's sentence is positive; but the imprisonment and subsequent parading of her relatives and associates shows a distressing -- yet all too consistent -- repression of dissent.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder