The international crossfire over Iran's stoning sentence for a woman convicted of adultery intensified Tuesday with a top European Union official calling it "barbaric" and an Iranian spokesman saying it's about punishing a criminal and not a human rights issue.
The sharp words from both sides provide a snapshot of the dispute: Western leaders are ramping up pressure to call off the sentence for Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani and Iran is framing it as a matter for its own courts and society.
The case of the 43-year-old mother of two also spills over into larger and even more complex issues for Iran's Islamic leaders of national sovereignty and defense of their system of justice.
Iranian authorities routinely defend their legal codes and human rights standards as fully developed and in keeping with the country's traditions and values. They have widely ignored Western denunciations over the crackdowns after last year's disputed presidential election.
Iranian authorities also bristle at Western criticism — including U.S. State Department human rights reports — and say foreign governments overlook shortcomings in their own systems and fail to hold Western ally Israel accountable.
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman, Ramin Mehmanparast, showed Tuesday that the Islamic state was willing to push back just as hard as the West — at least with rhetoric.
"If release of all those who have committed murder is considered defending human rights, all European countries can ... free murderers in defense of human rights," Mehmanparast told reporters.
Ashtiani's stoning sentence was put on hold in July and is now being reviewed by Iran's supreme court. Iranian authorities also say she has been convicted of playing a role in her husband's 2005 murder.
But her lawyer, Houtan Javid Kian, says she was never formally put on trial on the charge of being an accomplice to murder and was not allowed to mount a defense.
At the European parliament, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said he was "appalled" by the news of the sentence.
"Barbaric beyond words," he said during his first State of the Union address in Strasbourg, France.
The case also has been wrapped up in claims of Iranian missteps and abuses.
Last month, Iranian authorities broadcast a purported confession from Ashtiani on state-run television. A woman identified as Ashtiani admitted to being an unwitting accomplice in her husband's killing. Kian said he believes she was tortured into confessing.
Then on Monday, Kian said he 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, later apologized for the error.
There was no official Iranian confirmation of the new punishment.
Iran has given no signal it will bend easily to international appeals. Even an offer of asylum from Brazil — which is on friendly terms with Tehran — went nowhere.
The Vatican has hinted of the possibility of behind-the-scenes diplomacy to try to save her life.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner called the stoning sentence "the height of barbarism." Earlier, a hard-line Iranian newspaper, Kayhan, described French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy as a "prostitute" for condemning the stoning sentence.
Mehmanparast, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said the insult was not sanctioned by the government.
U.S. officials have so far let European allies lead the way over the case, preferring to keep up efforts to enforce tighter U.N. and American sanctions over Iran's nuclear program. But Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last month that Washington remains "troubled" by the case and Ashtiani's "fate is unclear."
Ashtiani's lawyer sees the next critical period coming next week. The moratorium on death sentences during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan will end, and he worries that an execution could be then carried out "any moment."
Stonings of men and women were widely carried out in the early years after the 1979 Islamic revolution. More recently, the punishment has been imposed less frequently, but cases are rarely confirmed by authorities and no official records are released.
In January 2009, Iranian judiciary spokesman Ali Reza Jamshidi said two men convicted of adultery were stoned to death the previous month in the northeastern city of Mashhad.
Iran also reported a death by stoning in July 2007 for a man convicted of adultery. The U.N. human rights chief at the time, Louise Arbour, condemned the execution as a "clear violation of international law."
Hangings are frequently carried out in Iran, whose legal system is a mix of civil statutes and Quran-inspired codes. Magistrates, who are often Muslim clerics, have wide latitude on sentences for crimes that break moral codes.
In December 2008, Iranian authorities shut down the office of a human rights group led by Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi, whose efforts included appeals to ban stonings. Ebadi has not returned to Iran since last year's re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Murphy reported from Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
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