European nations pressure Iran as envoy says 'mitigation' possible in woman's stoning case

BRUSSELS (AP) — European Union nations and the continent's biggest human rights organization slammed Iran on Wednesday for its plan to stone a woman convicted of adultery, while Iran's ambassador to the Vatican said it "is possible" the punishment could be eased.

The plight of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, a 43-year-old mother of two, has cast a harsh light on Iran's version of Islamic justice and caused a global outcry. Iran says it has put the stoning on hold for now but has also indicated Ashtiani could be hanged for her conviction of playing a role in her husband's 2005 murder.

In an interview broadcast on Italian state TV Wednesday, Tehran's envoy to the Holy See gave the strongest indication yet that Iran may set aside the death penalty — or at least the stoning — in Ashtiani's case.

Ali Akbar Naseri stressed that Islamic law was "inspired by clemency and forgiveness." Asked if that meant Ashtiani could receive clemency, he replied that "some mitigation of the punishment is possible" and said the case was under study by experts.

Though he did not elaborate, the comments also appeared to be a positive response to the Vatican's hint that it would try behind-the-scenes diplomacy to spare Ashtiani's life.

The European Union Parliament in Strasbourg, France, passed a resolution Wednesday condemning Tehran, a move that comes on the heels of EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso calling stoning "barbaric." The vote passed by a huge 658-to-1 margin with 22 abstentions. The vote against was an error and was to be amended in the parliamentary records later.

Sweden summoned Iran's ambassador to protest the sentence.

"It is important that we are not passive in a case that — except for her own destiny — has become a symbol for the repression in Iran," Sweden's Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said. "We are against the death penalty in all cases, but stoning is a specifically vile form of the death penalty."

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle released a statement saying he is "deeply worried for Ms. Ashtiani's life."

"Iran has to respect human rights, especially because it committed to do so under international law," Westerwelle said. It is "not a question of religion, but a question of fundamental human dignity."

The sentiments were echoed by the 47-nation Council of Europe, the continent's biggest human rights organization. It called on the Islamic republic's parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, to do his utmost to fully repeal the sentence.

"This inhuman sentence and the mistreatment that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is suffering cast a tragic shadow on your country," wrote Mevlut Cavusoglu, President of the Council's Parliamentary Assembly.

On Iran's state-run Press TV, Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast repeated previous statements that plans to carry out the stoning have been "stopped" while judiciary officials also study the punishment for Ashtiani's conviction of playing on role in her husband's 2005 murder.

Ashtiani's lawyer, Houtan Javid Kian, told The Associated Press there has been no change in her case and the stoning sentence was suspended but not officially canceled. He has said Ashtiani was never formally put on trial on the charge of being an accomplice to murder and was not allowed to mount a defense.

On Monday, Kian said he had received word that his client was lashed 99 times last week in a separate punishment after British newspaper ran a picture of an unveiled woman mistakenly identified as Ashtiani. The newspaper, the Times of London, apologized for the error.

There has been no official Iranian confirmation of the new punishment.

On Sunday, the Vatican raised the possibility of using its diplomatic channels in the case but it has stopped short of saying such efforts had begun. Some Western officials, including Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini, have said they don't believe Iran will carry out the stoning following the international outcry.

But Iran has at times struck a defiant tone. Even an offer of asylum from Brazil — which is on friendly terms with Tehran — went nowhere.

Mehmanparast accused the United States and other Western countries of trying to "exploit" the case and turn it into a "political charade."

"Our country has been under a lot of political pressure by the U.S. and other Western countries over its nuclear work," he noted.

The European Parliament, however, insisted universal human rights were what was at stake.

In its resolution, it said that "a sentence of death by stoning can never be justified."

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Associated Press Writers Frances D'Emilio in Rome, Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Malin Rising in Stockholm and Juergen Baetz in Berlin contributed to the story.