Iran’s delaying the stoning to death of a woman for adultery appears to underscore reticence by Muslim governments to brook local and international opinion to carry out such terrifying executions.

Apart from Iran, none of a handful of countries where Islamic Sharia law is practised, including ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, has implemented the punishment in recent years. And even in Iran, where press reports say six people may have been stoned to death over the past five years, stoning for adultery and fornication is increasingly rare.

“It’s actually not very widely used across the Middle East and Islamic world... even in Iran,” said Malcolm Smart of Amnesty International.

In Iran and elsewhere rights activists argue that stoning mostly singles out women, often letting men off lightly.

“There are aspects of stoning which are particularly abhorrent” compared with other execution methods, Mr Smart said.

In Iran the practice is to bury a man to his shoulders and a woman to her neck, with volunteers stoning them until they die.

On Tuesday, Iran’s foreign ministry reconfirmed official reports since July that the stoning of Sakineh Mohammadi-Ashtiani had been put on hold amid a campaign by foreign governments and human rights groups.

The 43-year-old mother of two had been condemned by an Islamic court for extra-marital sex, but a ministry spokesman said her case was now under review.

However, her son, Sajjad, has said she might be executed now that the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which ended on Thursday, is over.

But even as governments back off, two radical Islamic rebellions – the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Shebab in Somalia – are implementing stoning.

Moreover, extrajudicial “honour killing” stoning continues even among non-Muslims in deeply traditional societies such as Pakistan, Iraq and India.

In Iraq, a 17-year-old girl from the Kurdish Yazidi minority was stoned by a mob in 2007, apparently after she eloped with a Sunni Muslim.

And in India last May, a Hindu couple from different castes who had eloped were reportedly captured by the woman’s family and stoned to death.

Stoning as a legal punishment is embedded explicitly in traditional Islamic law, applied to crimes of “zina,” or adultery and fornication.

“There are many incidents in the sunnah (the teachings of Mohammed) and the life of the prophet... in which the prophet stoned the married adulterer and adulteress to death... All this makes it clear that the punishment is proven and authentic and is not debatable,” explains.

It is the law in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, Yemen, the United Arab Emirates, and the 12 Muslim-majority states of northern Nigeria.

Iran is the most notorious for officially sanctioned stoning.

According to Mina Ahadi, founder of International Committees against Execution and Stoning, 150 people may have been stoned in Iran over the past 30 years.

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