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Saturday, February 20, 1999 Published at 22:09 GMT

World: Middle East

Iran quashes death sentence

Non-Muslims can be hanged in Iran for sex with a Muslim women

Iran's supreme court has quashed the death sentence imposed on a German citizen, Helmut Hofer, for having a sexual relationship with an Iranian woman.

Mr Hofer was convicted in January 1998 of violating a law banning sexual relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.

BBC Iranian Affairs reporter Sadeq Saba says the decision to quash the death sentence is a political bonus for the reformist Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, although there is no evidence his government influenced the decision.

The Khatami camp was concerned that the execution of a German national for alleged sex offences would seriously damage his attempts to improve relations with the West.

The German Foreign Ministry has reacted cautiously to the announcement, saying it remained to be seen whether the quashing of the death sentence was a final decision.

Judicial officials in Tehran said the case had been referred to another court for a new hearing, but gave no date for the retrial.

Political dimension

The judiciary in Iran is controlled by Mr Khatami's conservative rivals and there were fears that the Hofer case was turning into another focus for the continuing power struggle within the clerical regime.

Mr Hofer's defence team had sought to overturn the conviction on the grounds that he had converted to Islam before the relationship started.

The 57-year-old businessman also denied he had sex with the woman, Vahideh Qassemi, a 26-year-old unmarried Iranian medical student.

She was arrested with Mr Hofer at Tehran airport in September 1997 and sentenced to 100 lashes.

The decision to rescind Mr Hofer's death sentence comes after the killing last week of a German businessman in Iran.

Heinrich Heimes, a former Tehran representative of Deutsche Bank, was seized from a German diplomatic car last Saturday.

The Iranian news agency described the killing as an attempted robbery and said the assailant also killed a policeman before being shot dead himself.

But some pro-Khatami newspapers have suggested that the killing was part of a campaign to sabotage relations with Germany.

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