There is a "good chance" that the life of an Iranian woman, sentenced to death by stoning for committing adultery, may be spared, the head of the country's Human Rights Commission told Iranian state media.
The official, Mohammed-Javad Larijani, who last week defended stoning following a United Nations censure vote, told Iran's Press TV that Sakineh Ashtiani, whose death sentence has become an international cause celebre, may not be executed after all.
"Iran's Council of Human Rights has helped a lot to reduce her sentence and we think there is a good chance that her life could be saved," Larijani said Monday.
Ashtiani, 43, was found guilty of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning in 2006. Since then she has confessed on Iranian television three times, but her face has been blurred each time. Her sentence had reportedly been changed from stoning to hanging, but the government maintained stoning was still an option.
According to Press TV, Larijani indicated Ashtiani's death sentence was "still open for further revision." He did not, however, say why the government is now hinting that her death penalty could be overturned
In an interview on Nov. 19 Larijani defended stoning as form of punishment for adulterers and gays convicted under Islamic law as a "lesser punishment" than other forms of execution because it supposedly allows people a chance to survive.
"Stoning means you should do a number of acts, by throwing the stone in a limited number, in a special way.…In the eyes of some people, stoning is a lesser punishment than execution because there is a chance you should survive," he said.
Larijani's contention that it is possible to survive a stoning seems to apply more to men than women.
Under the form of stoning used in Iran, before being pelted in the head with tennis ball-sized rocks, men are buried to their waists, but women are buried up to their shoulders. Under Iranian law, the stoning ends in some cases if the accused confessed his crime and can dig himself out of the hole.
International human rights groups believe there are at least 13 people awaiting stoning executions in Iran.
The lawyer representing Ashtiani told ABC News that despite Larijani's mantle as a defender of human rights, he is closely allied with Iran's staunchly conservative Islamic government. His most recent comments were likely made with the knowledge of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad.
"Larijani is a die-hard establishment figure not at all connected to human rights who is just trying to justify the regime's crimes," said Mohammed Mostafaei last week, following Larijani's comments to the Wall Street Journal.
Mostafaei had to flee Iran after he was threatened with arrest for defending Ashtiani and could not be reached again for comment.
Larijani told Press TV, Iran's use of stoning to execute convicts was comparable to death penalty techniques in the U.S.
"In the US, a woman killed her husband, with the aid of her ex-lover, and even though she was suffering from mental disorder, she was sentenced to the capital punishment and was executed," he said in reference to Teresa Lewis, 41, who was executed in Virginia in September for arranging the murder of her husband in 2002.
Larijani also accused the U.S. of being the "mastermind" behind the Canada-sponsored U.N. resolution condemning Iran.