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UN rights report targets Iran's Guardian Council

United Nations (Reuters) - Iran's powerful Guardian Council, set up to ensure that legislation conforms with Islam and the country's constitution, represents a "major obstacle" to the advancement of Iranian democracy, according to a UN report circulated yesterday.

The report also said the first seven months of this year had been "disastrous for the freedom of the press" in Iran, that executions were continuing at a reportedly high rate and that torture was "certainly not an isolated phenomenon."

"The Islamic Republic of Iran continues to make progress towards democracy, but sooner or later the arbitrary, untransparent and perhaps even capricious conduct of the Guardian Council must be addressed," said Canadian jurist Maurice Copithorne, a special representative of the UN Human Rights Commission on the rights situation in Iran.

The Guardian Council, which consists of six members of the clergy and six lawyers, reviews legislation passed by Iran's parliament and wields veto power. Members of the council are not popularly elected.

"As it stands now, it is an obstacle to making the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran more accountable to the Iranian people," he added.

Copithorne, who has not been allowed to visit Iran, cited the Guardian Council's "trespass into the election process, where its refusal to approve certain candidates and its annulling of the results in certain electoral divisions is widely viewed as an attempt to block the election of persons holding certain political views," including a number usually described as reformists.

The report said some members of the Council "are noted for the intolerant attitudes they occasionally express."

It said one member was "in effective control of an extrajudicial organisation, Ansar-i-Hezbollah, noted for its involvement in a wide variety of violent, terrorist-like activities against student and other elements in Iranian society, who are seen by this self-appointed band as threats to the nation's virtue."

"In short, without calling for the disbandment of the Council as it operates at present, the special representative believes it to be a major obstacle to the further development of democracy in the Islamic Republic of Iran," the report said.

The UN report said the "closing down of the reformist press has perhaps been the biggest story in the Islamic Republic of Iran itself, as well as the most evident mass suppression of a human right."

"At the time of preparation of the present report, some 22 newspapers and journals have been closed, and at least an equal number of publishers and writers have been convicted, jailed or fined, or served with a summons by one of the various tribunals now exercising jurisdiction over the press," Copithorne said in the report.

He also said executions "continued at a reportedly high rate in the period under review" and that, according to information based on press reports, "some 130 ... occurred from January to the end of July 2000, including the execution of a woman in front of her two children."

"Eleven executions were held in public. In three other cases, individuals sentenced to death were pardoned from execution by the family of the victim at the execution site," he said.

"Stoning, surely a barbaric punishment, appears finally to be declining in the Islamic Republic of Iran," he said. Only one such sentence came to his attention during the current period and that was apparently overturned on review.

"That torture continues in the Islamic Republic of Iran - and in its most primitive form - was confirmed in the period under review," the report continued. It cited the testimony of students and others arrested in the aftermath of demonstrations that took place in July 1999 and who were subsequently released, as well as letters from convicted students apparently smuggled out of prison, some of which had been published in the Iranian press.

"They make shocking reading," Copithorne said, adding that the allegations focus mainly on treatment in Towheed prison, "an institution reportedly belonging to the so-called Joint Committee Against Subversion, that is to say, it is outside the official prisons organisation."


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