A visiting team of U.N. human rights experts Wednesday criticized Iran for a judicial system that allowed significant numbers of political prisoners to be arbitrarily detained.
The visit was the first by a U.N. Human Rights Commission team since 1997 and gave Iran a chance to address a rights record that has strained relations with the European Union. The EU has sought tangible evidence of progress before cooperating more on trade.
French jurist Louis Joinet and his commission colleagues visited prisons in three cities, interviewed political prisoners and met with judiciary officials during a 12-day trip. The team was scheduled to leave today.
The team praised Tehran's cooperation but concluded that the structure and culture of Iran's judiciary led to a widespread miscarriage of justice. They said they found that many prisoners were unaware of their right to a lawyer and that sentences were often inconsistent. For example, the same crime sometimes received sentences as low as a few years in prison and as harsh as execution.
Joinet said the group found the Special Court for Clergy, where clerics are put on trial, unnecessary, and at odds with the principle of citizens being equal before the law. The judiciary, dominated by hard-liners, has used the court as a tool to silence dissident clerics.
"The problem is less one of freedom of expression, but freedom after expression," Joinet told reporters. He reminded Iran that it was a signatory to a United Nations rights covenant, which protects free speech that is not inciting violence or racial hatred.
The group visited Block 209 in the notorious Evin prison outside Tehran, where solitary confinement is a widespread practice for political prisoners.
The U.N. experts traveled to Shiraz, Isfahan and Yazd to visit prisons, but they skipped detention centers in the Kurdish-inhabited region of Iran, where there are frequent reports of summary executions of Kurdish activists.
Iran's government did not immediately respond to the criticisms.
In what quickly became an embarrassing development for the U.N. team, two political activists, Mohsen Sazgara and Qassem Sholeh-Saeedi, were detained by police last week.
Expatriate Iranian satellite TV stations broadcasting from Los Angeles encouraged Iranians to protest the arrests outside the hotel where the U.N. team was staying. About 100 people gathered Saturday to demand the release of political prisoners. Security forces arrested 10 to 20 demonstrators, five of whom are reportedly still being detained.
"This shows people don't believe their problems can be solved through the judiciary. It shows we have an accountability problem," Abbas Maleki, former deputy foreign minister under President Hashemi Rafsanjani, said of the visit.
The return of inspectors became possible after the U.N. Human Rights Commission lifted an 18-year censure of Iran last April. But analysts say the invitation is partly a reaction to being labeled part of an "axis of evil" by the Bush administration.
Iran hopes that closer ties with Europe will encourage the EU to intercede, should Washington choose to target Iran after the Iraq crisis is resolved, analysts said.
European diplomats and visiting officials have made it clear that unless Iran meaningfully improves human rights conditions, there will be limits to the Iran-EU relationship.
Influential conservatives, who control the judiciary, said they support the idea of a human rights dialogue with the European Union.
"We have nothing to lose by letting these experts in, but much to lose by keeping them out," Maleki said.
Human rights observers expect more such visits in the spring and hope that they will yield the sort of progress that has eluded Iran.
"If the group's recommendations are followed, this visit was an unprecedented step," said Elahe Sharifpour-Hicks, Iran researcher at Human Rights Watch. "But for now, Iran has just opened the door under pressure."