By Felicity Clarke, Senior Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO – In a surprise move, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has offered refuge in Brazil to an Iranian woman sentenced to death by stoning in her own country. The appeal to the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and offer of asylum to Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, whose case has caused an international outcry, was made in Curitiba on Saturday where Lula was on the campaign trail with the PT presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff.

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani is facing the punishment of stoning to death in Iran, photo by AP/Amnesty International.

“If my friendship with the president of Iran and the regard I hold him in is worth something, if this woman is causing problems, then we will willingly receive her here¨ he told the press, adding, ¨I find myself imagining what would happen if one day there was a country in the world that would stone a man because he was cheating. Nothing justifies the state taking someone’s life. Only God gives life and only He should take it away.”

The offer is an about turn for the President who only last week answered the global and national internet campaign and a petition with over 114,000 signatures including celebrities such as musician Chico Buarque and former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso with a dismissal. Folha de São Paulo reported Lula as saying “A president cannot stay on the internet attending every request from someone from another country… we must be careful because people have laws, people have rules.”

Convicted in 2006 of having an “illicit relationship” with two men, 43 year old mother of two Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani received 99 lashings. A court then changed the charge to ¨adultery while married¨ and sentenced her to death by stoning. In the last few weeks, an international campaign led by her children has been mounting with widespread support and coverage around the world. In Brazil, Lula has been under pressure from an internet campaign, petition and public protests.

The offer of asylum made on Saturday has been welcomed by campaigners with The International Committee Against Execution and International Committee Against Stoning saying in a joint statement that they “welcome any new developments that can save her precious life and reunite her with her children.”

Ashtiani’s son Sajad told the Guardian “I don’t think Iran can ignore Brazil as easily as it ignored other countries. It is very important that Brazil, as one of Iran’s most significant allies in the world, has offered a haven for my mother.”

The burgeoning relationship between the two countries gives Lula’s appeal particular significance. In May, the Brazilian President led an effort to persuade Iran to temper its nuclear activities after U.N. talks stalled. Assuming the role as mediator between Iran and the West, Lula’s diplomatic mission to encourage the Islamic state to agree to send some of its uranium abroad and limit production was met with incredulity and criticism by some members of the international community.

While the negotiations amounted to little in the way of forward progress, the relationship between the nations, strengthened by Lula’s sympathies with Iran’s right to a nuclear program, remain strong, lending important weight to the offer of refuge to Ashtiani.

According to the Guardian report, Lula’s intervention has already had affect with the weeks-long media blackout in Iran lifted and Iranian officials calling Ashtiani’s son Sajad within hours of the statement to pledge that the case will be resolved this week: “Their tone was more polite than before. After President Lula’s comment, for the first time agencies in Iran reported my mother’s stoning case, it shows how important Brazil is for Iran.”

Some Iranian newspapers have criticised Lula’s appeal, such as Jahan News who view it as the West interfering in Iran’s domestic affairs. However on the global stage, publicly condemning Iran’s execution policy is a boost to Lula’s international standing on human rights issues and could ease any concerns over the alliance between Brazil and Iran.

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