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Lewis and Ashtiani

MEPs condemn stoning sentence on Ashtiani: Photo by European Parliament/Pietro Naj-Oleari.

On September 23, forty-one-year-old Teresa Lewis was executed in the US state of Virginia despite having learning difficulties. Her case made headlines across the world because she was the first woman to be put to death in the United States in five years, and in Virginia for nearly a hundred years.

At the surface, the case of Teresa Lewis of Virginia and Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani of Tabriz may seem different, most obviously in the method of execution. Teresa was executed by lethal injection. Sakineh, on the other hand, has been sentenced to death by stoning. A sentence which has still not been revoked but merely put on hold, due to public outcry. Teresa was executed for conspiring to murder her husband and stepson while Sakineh has been sentenced to death for adultery. But, there are far more similarities than differences here.

Teresa was executed while the hitmen who actually killed her husband and stepson were given life in prison. Sakineh too has been sentenced to death by stoning while her alleged lover has not. Moreover, after the international campaign in her defence, the Islamic regime in Iran has tried to stitch Sakineh up with trumped up murder charges in order to facilitate her execution while the man who has been convicted of murdering her husband is not on death row.

There are more, but the starkest similarity is fundamentally in the barbarism of execution whatever form it may take. While stoning is obviously the most brutal form, Teresa’s last moments will enrage any decent human being, even with the sanitisation of capital punishment in the US and niceties such as a legal minimum IQ (Teresa’s was two points above it), a last meal of choice (Teresa had chicken and chocolate cake), and evening executions so that death row inmates can spend the whole day with their loved ones before they are killed. The term capital punishment is itself a sanitised name for what is, in effect, premeditated murder by the state.

To make my point, here goes a media account (Maria Glod, September 24/The Washington Post) of the execution:

Teresa Lewis, wearing a light blue shirt, dark blue pants and flip flops, came through the door at 8:55, ushered by guards in blue uniforms who held her elbows. She looked toward us with a gaze that seemed dazed and anxious. Within moments she was flat on the gurney. Several guards strapped her down. I never saw her face again.

At 8:58, officials drew a dark blue curtain across the window. Behind it, they attached the intravenous lines. We could not see or hear anything. Perry wept.

At 9:09 the curtain opened. Teresa’s arms were now extended from her body with strips of white tape holding the tubes in. The warden asked Teresa if she had any final words. Her speech sounded garbled at first, but officials later told us she asked if Kathy Clifton was there. Then she said clearly: “I just want Kathy to know that I love you and I am very sorry.”

The chemicals began flowing. In Virginia, the first is Thiopental Sodium, which renders the person unconscious. The second, Pancuronium Bromide stops breathing. The final chemical, Potassium Chloride, stops the heart.

Teresa Lewis’ feet and toes twitched, then they stopped.

I could not tell when she died.

Undoubtedly, the state of Virginia’s murder of Teresa Lewis is far worse than anything she had or could have done, however heart-wrenching the loss of her victims. She had a learning disability, the state of Virginia has no such excuse. More importantly, as Mansoor Hekmat would have put it, unlike Teresa the state “publicly, with prior notice, on behalf of society, with the utmost legitimacy and ruthlessness, decide[d] to murder [her], and announce[d] the date and time of the event.”

Of course some will say Teresa got what she deserved. But justice has (or at least should have) nothing to do with retribution. We do not allow the rape of rapists, or the burning down of the houses of arsonists, do we? Also the eye for an eye argument ignores the reality that capital punishment is meted out for many different offences depending on time and place. In today’s Iran, for example, there are one-hundred-thirty offences punishable by death under Sharia law, including apostasy, heresy, blasphemy, and homosexuality.

What is painstakingly clear about Teresa’s execution or the stoning sentence of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is that execution by a state is never about justice, whatever its justifications. And it is always about putting people in their places and creating a climate of intimidation and fear, albeit in different forms depending on whether it takes place in the US, China, or Iran.

In the end, the machinery of death as Teresa’s lawyer has called it took yet another life. And by doing so further diminished rather than elevated the value of human life. And sanitised or not, it has to be stopped. Full stop.


Maryam Namazie is rights activist, commentator, and broadcaster.

In print: Independent World Report — Issue 5, September 2010.

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