Iran's grim history of death by stoning

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani (Family handout via Amnesty International) Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani's fate remains unclear

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Iran appears to have backed down over the stoning of a woman for adultery amid an international outcry, putting the whole issue of stoning as a punishment under the spotlight once again.

Iran has said Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, will be spared being stoned to death for adultery while leaving it unclear what fate does await her.

The mother of two was arrested in 2005 and subsequently convicted of having an "illicit relationship" for which she was given 99 lashes witnessed by her son, then in his late teens.

Her case was then reopened and she was convicted of adultery during her marriage, for which she was given the sentence of death by stoning.

Iran's existing penal code provides for this form of execution for one crime - adultery, an offence "against divine law" - though murder, rape, armed robbery and drug trafficking are also punishable by death.

Stoned or spared

Human rights campaigners say Iran has one of the highest rates of executions in the world.

Death by stoning came into use in Iran after the 1979 revolution.

Iranian protest outside Iran's embassy in Ankara, Turkey, 9 July The case has sparked an international outcry

Amnesty International says that at least eight people were stoned to death in 1986.

The group says some people have linked this to the passing of a law that year which allowed the hiring of judges with minimal experience and that it led to an increase in the number of judges from a traditional religious background.

In 1995, Amnesty International received reports that as many as 10 people may have been stoned to death that year.

In 2002, the Iranian judiciary placed a moratorium on death by stoning.

But such sentences have continued to be reported. And Amnesty said this week that eight men and three women were awaiting the carrying out of sentences of stoning and since 2006 at least six people had been put to death in this manner.

It also said 15 people had been saved from stoning.

The brief statement from the Iranian embassy in London announcing that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani would not be executed by stoning said that "this kind of punishment has rarely been implemented" in Iran.

It also said stoning was not in a draft Islamic penal code currently under consideration in the Iranian parliament.

'Medieval'

Iran has long argued that the death penalty is essential in maintaining public security.

It also says it is only carried out after exhaustive judicial proceedings, a claim that has been challenged by human rights groups.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a party, requires those states that maintain the death penalty to restrict it to "the most serious crimes".

Critics of the way Iran has been using capital punishment say that it has acted in clear violation of the covenant.

From time to time there have been reports of stonings from other countries, such as Somalia and Afghanistan.

A case in Somalia in October 2008 attracted much attention. A girl was stoned to death before a large crowd at a football stadium.

The suggestion - particularly from her lawyer - that Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani appeared to be on the verge of being stoned to death saw Iran accused internationally this week of allowing a "medieval" practice which has no place in the modern world.

It brought a response from the Iranian authorities indicating that they do not relish a confrontation on this issue, even if the next steps are not yet clear.

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