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France urges EU to threaten Iran sanctions over stoning

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(PARIS) - France urged the European Union on Friday to threaten Iran with new sanctions over the case of a woman sentenced to death by stoning, despite Tehran's warning to the West not to interfere.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner wrote to European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to call for all 27 member states to warn Tehran not to execute 43-year-old Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani, in a letter seen by AFP.

"A joint letter from all EU member states to the Iranian authorities has become necessary, in my view, if we want to save this young woman," Kouchner wrote, in a copy of Wednesday's letter released to AFP.

"We must engage the Union in new initiatives to remind Iranian authorities that, just as in the nuclear matter, their isolationist and closed stance will have a cost for them," he wrote.

In a reply to Kouchner's letter, Ashton said the EU was about to reject "practices of another age."

"Your concerns over the human rights situation in Iran exactly reflect mine," Ashton said in her letter to Kouchner, of which AFP obtained a copy.

"As for the case of Mrs Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, who was sentenced to stoning, I think, as you do, that the moment has come for the European Union to collectively express its rejection of practices of another age."

Ashton said the EU was currently undertaking "discreet" steps in Tehran.

"If they do not yield convincing results, I would only see advantages in EU members sending a collective letter to the Iranian authorities quickly."

Ashton said the EU should draw up "a more efficient strategy than the one we have today" but warned that a discussion of this "key issue" would probably not be possible during the EU foreign ministers' informal meeting on September 10-11 in Brussels but still "very soon".

French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday threw his weight behind efforts to prevent the stoning, which he called a "medieval" practice.

Mohammadi-Ashtiani, a mother of two, was sentenced to death by stoning in 2006 by an Iranian Islamic court. Iranian officials claim she is guilty of adultery and was an accomplice in the murder of her husband.

The sentence has "provoked a revolt from all those in Europe who do not accept barbarity," Kouchner wrote.

The execution has been put on hold, amid a mounting international outcry over the sentence, but Iranian officials have insisted that justice will run its course.

Kouchner said that Iran should only escape new measures if it "chooses a more responsible course that lives up to its international human rights commitments".

When EU foreign ministers meet on September 10, "I would like the European council to re-start its work on these matters to take new measures against all those in Iran who have organised repression," he said.

Kouchner was referring in particular to deadly crackdowns waged by Iranian authorities in response to protests that broke out after the contested re-election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in June 2009.

Meanwhile in London, the Foreign Office said it remained "deeply concerned" by the case, adding that the "EU has a key role to play in maintaining pressure on Iran to comply with its international human rights obligations".

"Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt has raised these concerns with the Iranian Ambassador on a number of occasions," it said.

"Restrictions on fundamental human rights are completely unacceptable and will only add to the Iranian people's loss of trust in its Government.

"We would support any proposal that could play a positive role in improving the human rights situation in Iran and we will be discussing this with our EU partners."

Western countries accuse the regime of abusing human rights and stifling the media.

They also suspect it of seeking to produce nuclear weapons, but Tehran denies this and has not bowed to four sets of UN sanctions aimed at curbing its nuclear activities.

Iran last week told Western nations to stay out of the case.

"Independent nations do not allow other countries to interfere in their judicial affairs," Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast told a news conference.

"Western nations must not pressurise and hype it up," he added. "Judicial cases have precise procedures, especially when it concerns murder.

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