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Iran: UN Envoy Meets With Dissidents, Calls Situation 'Complex'

The UN's special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression has wrapped up a weeklong trip to Iran. Ambeyi Ligabo says he asked the authorities in Tehran to release all of the country's imprisoned dissidents.

Prague, 11 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- During his visit to Iran, UN envoy Ambeyi Ligabo says he was able to meet with almost all of the 40 dissidents -- both freed and jailed -- that he had asked to see. He also met with Iranian officials and the families of political prisoners as part of his fact-finding mission on the use of violence and harassment against those who peacefully express their views in Iran.

Ligabo said he has asked the Iranian authorities to release all of the country's political dissidents. He said the Iranian authorities told him that some of the cases are being reviewed.

On 9 November, authorities released on bail University of California lecturer Dariush Zahedi, who Tehran accuses of espionage. Zahedi was detained on 10 July while visiting relatives in Iran. Iranian activist Reza Alijani, who was detained in July following street protests against Iran's Islamic rule, was also due to be released, but that was not able to be confirmed.

Hossein Bagherzadeh is a human rights activist in London who follows the situation in Iran closely. He told RFE/RL that there are no exact figures for the number of political prisoners being held in the Islamic Republic. "At the moment, we have the names of about 30 or 40 people who have been known and [whose names have been] published in the Iranian press," he said. "We believe that the real number [of political prisoners] runs into the hundreds of people."

Bagherzadeh said several factors prevent knowing the exact number of political prisoners in Iran. "The authorities never produce or publish the exact figures. The families sometimes are reluctant to announce the arrest of their loved ones because they are afraid that makes bad publicity for them, and also because there are many arrests done in the provinces and cities outside the capital where the local press is not very active or free to report," he said. "Also, there are various bodies in Iran who go out and arrest people and are not controlled by the government, and again, they are reluctant to let people know who they are holding [and] why they are holding [them]."

Ligabo told reporters that he had found a difference between what Iranian laws prescribe and what is implemented. He called the situation "quite complex," saying the Iranian Constitution and many laws provide for protection of the right to freedom of opinion but that they are open to wide interpretation when they are implemented. He said those he met with complained of a variety of injustices, including torture and solitary confinement.

Ligabo met with several of Iran's high-profile political prisoners. Among them was Hashem Aghajari, a prominent academic who was sentenced to death last year following a speech he made in which he called for a religious renewal of Shia Islam and questioned the right of the clergy to rule.

Following protests by students across Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei asked for a review of Aghajari's sentence. Aghajari, who is a disabled veteran of Iran's war with Iraq, is still imprisoned, awaiting that review.

Yesterday, Ligabo asked for Aghajari's release on health grounds. "You cannot take care of yourself when you are in prison," Ligabo said. "It is important that he be released to take care of himself."

Ligabo also met with students who had spent or are spending time in jail for expressing their views. Ali Sarmadi, who is a student activist, told Radio Farda after meeting with Ligabo that activists have been imprisoned in Iran simply for peacefully expressing their views. "Everyone talked about one thing -- [that is] all those who are held as prisoners of conscience in Iran have been imprisoned solely for expressing their views," he said. "No one took to arms, and no one engaged in acts of violence. All were imprisoned for saying something or writing it."

Ahmad Batebi is a student activist who was originally sentenced to death for his role in the 1999 student unrest. He is on prison leave for medical reasons and met with Ligabo on 8 November. In an interview with Radio Farda after that meeting, Batebi said he was aware that his talks with the UN envoy could have serious consequences. "We might have something resembling freedom of speech in Iran, but surely no one can ensure our safety once we have expressed our views," he said. "It's not important why we attended that meeting and what we said there. What's important is that we did attend and that's enough to endanger our security." Batebi has since been reported missing by his family. His whereabouts are unknown.

In addition to political activists, intellectuals, and students, journalists are also imprisoned on a regular basis in Iran. The Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders lists Iran as having the largest number of imprisoned journalists in the Middle East. Currently, more than 10 journalists are believed to be held in Iranian prisons for press-related offenses. During the last year, more than 35 journalists spent various lengths of time in jail -- sometimes without trial.

Ligabo, who ended his visit to Tehran yesterday, is due to present a report on the situation in Iran to the annual meeting of the UN Commission on Human Rights in March.
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    Golnaz Esfandiari

    Golnaz Esfandiari is managing editor of RFE/RL's Radio Farda, which breaks through government censorship to deliver accurate news and provide a platform for informed discussion and debate to audiences in Iran. She has reported from Afghanistan and Haiti and is one of the authors of The Farda Briefing newsletter. Her work has been cited by The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other major publications. Born and raised in Tehran, she is fluent in Persian, French, English, and Czech.