GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations human rights office called on Tuesday for the immediate release of prominent activists and journalists it said had been arrested or intimidated as part of an apparent clampdown on critical voices ahead of next year's presidential election.
Spokesman Rupert Colville cited among others the cases of Ali Akbar Javanfekr, press adviser to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and head of the state-run IRNA news agency, jailed for six months for insulting the Supreme Leader, and Reuters Bureau Chief Parisa Hafezi charged with spreading lies and propaganda.
"It's certainly a clampdown, it's a large number of people, quite prominent people just in the past two weeks. There does seem to be some political linkage possibly to the forthcoming elections," Colville told a news briefing.
Colville said he was particularly concerned about the September 29 arrest of human rights lawyer Mohammad Ali Dadkhah, who had been sentenced to nine years in prison For "membership of an association seeking to overthrow the government and propaganda against the system."
Dadkhah, co-founder with 2003 Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi of the Centre for Human Rights Defenders, has been involved in defending many high-profile cases.
Colville also referred to the detention last month of Faezeh Hashemi and Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, the daughter and son of Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, former President of Iran.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was first elected in 2005 and is due to step down next year when new polls are held. His re-election in 2009 resulted in demonstrations and accusations of electoral fraud that rocked the country.
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In his second term, he has increasingly come into conflict with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that has exposed broader divisions in the leadership. Tensions have been further raised by economic problems resulting at least in part from sanctions imposed by Western powers over Tehran's nuclear programme.
"The ongoing arrest and detention of media professionals and intimidation of media organizations is deeply worrying, especially given we are now entering the run-up to the June 2013 Presidential elections," Colville said. "We urge the Government of Iran to promptly release all those who have been arrested for peacefully exercising their fundamental rights."
In March, the Iranian government suspended the press accreditation of Reuters staff in Tehran after publication of a video script on women's martial arts training that incorrectly referred to the athletes as "assassins". Since then, Reuters has been unable to report from Iran.
Reuters, the news arm of Thomson Reuters, the global news and information group, corrected the story after the martial arts club complained. Reuters also apologised for the error.
Reuters' Bureau Chief in Iran, Iranian national Parisa Hafezi, was subsequently charged on several counts including spreading lies and propaganda against the establishment. Hafezi had not been involved in drafting the video script.
An Iranian jury voted on Sunday to convict the Reuters news organisation over the video script. A final decision will be made by a judge, expected to issue his verdict this month.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay)