Iran backing down on woman's stoning
London - Iran appeared on Friday to have backed down over the stoning of a woman for adultery amid an international outcry, although her lawyer said she remained in jail and could still be executed by other means.
The Iranian embassy in London said in a statement reported by The Times that Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani would no longer be stoned to death, a practice condemned by Western governments as "medieval" and tantamount to torture.
The embassy said that "according to information from the relevant judicial authorities in Iran, (Mohammadi-Ashtiani) will not be executed by stoning."
Her lawyer in Iran, however, said he had yet to receive any confirmation of the news, and bemoaned the vagueness of the statement which did not say whether she might be killed by other means.
"I have yet to be told of any stay in implementation of the sentence," Mohammad Mostafavi told AFP by telephone. "My client remains in prison."
The embassy did not elaborate on whether her conviction had been quashed or the sentence had been commuted to an alternative form of capital punishment - in Iran normally hanging from a crane inside prison walls.
"It didn't say the verdict had been overturned, so is she going to face some alternative punishment, is she going to be released or will there be a retrial?" Mostafavi said.
Mohammadi-Ashtiani, 43, was convicted in 2006 of having an "illicit relationship" with two men and received 99 lashes, before being convicted of adultery and sentenced to death, according to Amnesty International.
The rights group warned on July 1 that the mother-of-two's execution may be "imminent" and in the past week, the European Union, Britain, France and the United States have urged the Iranian authorities to stay the execution.
An open letter condemning the execution has also been signed by figures such as former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, three ex-British foreign ministers, Nobel peace laureate Jose Ramos-Horta and actor Robert De Niro.
Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa deputy director, urged Iran to spare Mohammadi-Ashtiani's life, saying a "mere change" in the method of execution was not enough.
"To punish - and in some cases execute - people for being in consenting relationships is no business of the state," the Amnesty official said.
The rights group said it was aware of at least 10 other people - including seven women - under sentence of stoning.
On Thursday, British Foreign Secretary William Hague said that if the "medieval" execution went ahead it would "disgust and appal" the world.
"I think that stoning is a medieval punishment that has no place in the modern world and the continued use of such a punishment in Iran demonstrates in our view a blatant disregard for human rights," he said.
In Washington the same day, US state department spokesperson Mark Toner told reporters: "Stoning as a means of execution is tantamount to torture. It's barbaric and an abhorrent act."
EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton said stoning was "a particularly cruel method of execution which amounts to torture", while French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the case "offends the universal conscience".
A host of prominent names from the worlds of politics and arts, including actor Robert Redford and philosopher Bernard Henri Levy, signed an open letter Friday in The Times.
"On top of what she has already endured, Ms Ashtiani faces a gruesome and agonising death," said the letter.
"We urge the Iranian government to overturn this unjust sentence and reconsider Ms Ashtiani's case."