GENEVA - A UN expert has warned that systematic repression is creating a climate of fear in Iran, where hardliners have gained a stranglehold over government and the judiciary in the country.
Ambeyi Ligabo, UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression, said in a report obtained Wednesday that unelected institutions run by hardliners had effectively locked out reformers even though they participated in the highest spheres of Iranian government.
The UN expert underlined that there was a "climate of fear induced by the systematic repression of people expressing critical views against the authorised political and religious doctrine and the functioning of institutions".
Coupled with the "severity and disproportion" of sentences imposed on alleged offenders, that pervasive fear led to self-censorship on the part of journalists, intellectuals, politicians, students and "the population at large", he added in the report.
Ligabo said the Expediency Council, the Council of Guardians, the Supreme Council for Culture and the head of the judiciary exercised "institutional locks on governmental, parliamentary, and judicial processes".
Many of the people whom Ligabo met in Iran told him that "there is freedom of expression but there is no freedom after expression," the report said.
The Kenyan lawyer's report, which is due to be presented to the annual meeting of the UN Human Rights Commission beginning next week, was based on an unprecedented mission to the country last November.
The Iranian student news agency (ISNA) reported the day after Ligabo left on November 11 that a prominent Iranian student activist, who had met the envoy during prison leave, had gone missing.
Highlighting several cases, the report repeated a call for an amnesty for all prisoners prosecuted or sentenced for press and opinion-related offences in Iran.
Ligabo, who met senior government and legal officials, noted "with regret and concern" that he had received no "substantive" response to requests for more information about the death of Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazemi.
Kazemi was arrested last June for taking photographs outside Tehran's notorious Evin prison.
She later died in hospital from a brain hemorrhage caused by a blow to the head and an intelligence ministry agent has been charged with "participation in a quasi-intentional murder".
"In the present circumstances there will be no adequate and satisfactory response from the authorities to this odious crime... thus allowing the persons responsible for Mrs Kazemi's death to go unpunished," the report said.
Ligabo found that the limit beyond which a statement was regarded as breaching Islamic principles was blurred and the red line "varies extensively, even among clerics".
"There is an urgent need to define more clearly the contents of Islamic principles in the law, in order to avoid arbitrariness in their interpretation," the report said.
Opinion-related offences should also be excluded from the competence of Revolutionary Courts, it added.
The report underlined that lawyers were not even granted immunity for statements they made in court to defend their clients, while parliamentarians who were meant to be granted immunity, had been prosecuted.
Ligabo was the first UN rapporteur on free speech ever to visit the country and one of several human rights experts from the world body who were allowed into Iran in 2003 after being barred by the Islamic regime since the early 1990s.
Advocacy groups on Wednesday urged the 53 member UN Human Rights Commission to take action on Iran in the next few weeks following the turmoil in the country's elections and growing reports of human rights violations.
"We hope that the Canadians... will present a resolution with the help of the European Union," said Human Rights Watch representative Loubna Freih.