TEHRAN - A moratorium on executions by stoning is only temporary, a top Iranian conservative cleric said Saturday, while admitting the practice had hurt the Islamic republic's image abroad.
"Stonings have been provisionally suspended due to their negative effects, but this suspension is provisional," Hojatoleslam Mohsen Gharavian, a conservative cleric based in the central theological base of Qom, was quoted as saying by the state news agency IRNA.
With a suspension in place, he said it was now up to Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to make a final decision on whether executions by stoning - used to punish adulterers - should be totally stopped.
"The punishment of stoning, if they are not in the interests of Muslims and Islam, can be suspended for a determined period by the supreme guide," he was quoted as saying.
Last week member of parliament Jamileh Kadivar said Iran's judiciary will no longer order executions by stoning and has told judges to issue alternative punishments for adultery.
The European Union, which is currently engaged in human rights talks linked to landmark trade negotiations, has been asking Iran to impose a moratorium on executions by stoning.
Iran's reformist camp, which controls parliament and the presidency under Mohammad Khatami, has also been urging a change, along with a string of visiting foreign dignitaries.
Under the strict form of Islamic law in force here since the 1979 revolution, execution by stoning is usually imposed for adultery.
But in practice, the punishment is seldom ordered, given that even some prominent conservatives have blasted the practice as backward.
EU diplomats said there were two confirmed cases in 2001, and one unconfirmed case in 2002 in which a condemned woman reportedly survived by struggling out of the pit in which she had been buried before she could be killed.
Women sentenced to death are buried up to their shoulders, and men up to the waist, then onlookers are invited to pelt them with stones until death.
The stones are selected to be too small to kill immediately, in what London-based rights group Amnesty International has described as a "method specifically designed to increase the victim's suffering".