Tehran, Iran 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.