Report: Iran may commute woman's stoning sentence

AP, Sunday 2 Jan 2011

Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning could have her punishment commuted after mounting international pressure

Authorities reviewing a death by stoning sentence against an Iranian woman convicted of adultery could still halt the punishment, a senior judiciary official said Sunday as Iran struggles to mute an international outcry over the case.

The comments, however, offered no clear evidence that Iran's judiciary would commute the sentence against Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was taken from prison late Saturday to meet with journalists in another bid by Iran to highlight her purported confession of helping her lover kill her husband.

Ashtiani - who has previously appeared on state-run TV - denied she has been tortured in prison and admitted she was an accomplice in the murder. Security officials were present as she spoke.

Iranian authorities also used her brief appearance to push back against pressure to free two German reporters arrested after trying to interview Ashtiani's son, who helped ignite the international campaign against the stoning sentence. Ashtiani said she planned to sue the two Germans and others if she was released.

The threats of lawsuits against two Germans was seen a warning to the international activists and media to stay out of the case.

A report by the Fars news agency quoted Malek Ajdar Sharifi, the head of justice department of East Azerbaijan province where Ashtiani is jailed, as saying her case is still under review and the stoning sentence could be lifted.

"Everything is possible," he said, but did not elaborate on whether she could still face death by hanging _ by far the most common form of capital punishment in Iran.

Sharifi said there are "some ambiguities on evidence" in the killing of her husband.

Ashtiani was convicted of adultery in 2006 after the murder of her husband and sentenced to death by stoning. In the face of international outrage, the sentence has been suspended and is under review by the Supreme Court.

She was later convicted of being an accessory to her husband's murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison, said her son. On Saturday, Ashtiani was brought before journalists in the northeastern city of Tabriz, where she is serving her prison sentence. The event was hastily arranged by officials.

She also lashed out at her previous lawyer, Mohammad Mostafaei, who fled Iran to Norway after bringing international attention to the case. She claimed she would file lawsuits against the lawyer and others, including an Iranian-born activist in Germany, Mina Ahadi, whose website was among the first to spotlight her case.

She also vowed to take legal action against the two German reporters who interviewed her son, Sajjad Qaderzadeh, who also was allowed to meet with journalists late Saturday. Iranian state-run Press TV said the son would take similar action against the Germans - a reporter and photographer working for Germany's mass-circulation tabloid Bild am Sonntag.

Iranian and German authorities have not identified the two journalists, but late Monday, an official Iranian TV outlet, Press TV, identified them for the first time, showing a passport belonging to as Marcus Alfred Rudolf Hellwig. The English-language Press TV identified the second journalist as Jens Andreas Koch.

The two Germans entered the country on tourist visas and were arrested in early October while interviewing Qaderzadeh and the family's new lawyer, who were also taken into custody.

In his first public meeting with journalists, Qaderzadeh said he had been freed on Dec. 12 after posting a $40,000 bail and now wants to devote his life to saving his mother. "I do not think that my mother is innocent. She is certainly guilty," he said. "However, the decision has to be made by our country's officials. They may change the stoning sentence to some other verdict."

In Germany, the Bild newspaper published 12 pages of statements and photos from more than 100 prominent figures from politics, sports and entertainment calling for the reporters' release. The appeals included German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Formula One driver Michael Schumacher and former tennis great Boris Becker.

Last week, Iran allowed two imprisoned German journalists to meet family members for about 12 hours overnight, the first visit since their arrest.

Stoning was widely imposed in the years following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Although Iran's judiciary still regularly issues stoning sentences, they are often converted to other punishments. The last known stoning was carried out in 2007, although the government rarely confirms or comments on stonings.

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