“We do not jail people for their opinions," said Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in an interview with U.S. journalist and television personality Charlie Rose aired on April 27.
Zarif made the comments in response to a question about the fate of Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who’s been imprisoned in Iran on espionage charges.
Despite the claim by Zarif, rights groups say there are several hundred political prisoners in Iran, some of which have ended up in prison for expressing their opinions or because of their peaceful political activities.
They include student activists Bahareh Hedayat and Majid Tavakoli and opposition figures Mir Hossein Musavi, Zahra Rahnavard, and Mehdi Karrubi, who have been under house arrest for some four years without being formally charged.
Dozens of Baha'is, Sufis, and Christian converts have also been jailed in recent years due to their religious beliefs.
Iranian officials often deny the existence of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience while referring to them as "security prisoners." Iranian courts send activists, intellectuals, and others to jail on security charges.
In his interview with Rose, Zarif said the Iranian government had a plan to improve human rights but he added, "people who commit crimes, who violate the laws of a country, cannot hide behind being a journalist or being a political activist."
"People have to observe the law," he said.
Zarif was reminded of Iranian political prisoners during his remarks at an April 29 event in New York organized by the New America Foundation when an Iranian student attending the event held a Persian-language sign calling for the release of opposition leader Musavi.
The sign held by student Ali Abdi had another message in English for the United States and other countries that have imposed sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program: "End sanctions against Iran."
At the end of the session, Abdi called on Zarif as the representative of the Iranian government to push for the release of political prisoners and more freedom inside the country.
"As an Iranian student who lives in the U.S. I hope the nuclear issue will be resolved, an agreement will be reached, and people won't have to carry the burden of the sanctions," Abdi said in Persian.
Abdi noted that when Zarif returned to Iran last month from Lausanne, Switzerland, where Iran and world powers reached a framework nuclear agreement, some people who had come to the airport to welcome Iran’s top diplomat chanted in support of Musavi.
Abdi added: "We expect you as the representative of the government to pursue the [democratic] demands of the Iranian people inside the country as you are doing here bravely."
Abdi told RFE/RL that Zarif "politely" waited till he expressed himself and thanked him before leaving the room.