UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- A special U.N. rapporteur released a scathing report Wednesday detailing widespread human rights abuses in Iran, but he said recent signals from new President Hassan Rouhani have raised expectations for change.
Ahmed Shaheed's report condemned a rise in the number of jailed journalists in Iran over the past decade -- including 23 since January -- and other restrictions against freedom of expression, including the blocking of up to 5 million of websites. He expressed alarm about a law being considered that would allow a custodian to marry his adopted child. And he said minority religious groups are subjected to discrimination in employment and education, and are often arbitrarily arrested and tortured.
But Shaheed welcomed the recent release of more than a dozen political prisoners and "a number of positive signals" from Rouhani, who has made several calls for change since taking office in August, including lifting restrictions academic freedoms, increasing social media access and urging police not to crack down on perceived violations of Islamic dress codes for women.
"These signals I refer to raise the expectation of tangible and sustainable reforms," Ahmed said in a speech presenting his report.
He called for the release of hundreds more prisoners of conscience and urged Iran to respond to his numerous requests to visit the Islamic Republic.
In a written response, Iran rejected Shaheed's report as "a biased approach" that relied on unconfirmed reports for some numbers and "does not merit public trust or confidence." The country defended its press freedom policies, saying they are carried out with regard to "the fundamental principles of Islam and the public rights" enshrined in Iran's Constitution.
Shaheed's report said 40 journalists and 29 bloggers are serving sentences in Iran for offenses from national security crimes to "spreading propaganda against the state." He said that some 1,500 "anti-religious websites" are closed each month, including those containing content on the minority Wahhabi and Baha'i religions, as well as sites dedicated to news, music and women's rights.
Shaheed said he was especially concerned that 786 people have been executed for drug trafficking offenses in Iran since August 2011, when he became special rapporteur. He also lamented that crimes including homosexual acts and insulting Islamic prophets are considered capital offenses and called on Iran to declare a moratorium on all executions. And he said flogging and amputations remain widespread.
In its response, Iran stood by the punishments in its penal code, saying they are carried out with due process and are based on Islamic law.
He detailed numerous allegations of abuse against religious minorities, including the jailing of 109 Baha'is as of May 2013 and 300 cases of abuse of Baha'i children in schools, where some youngsters are pressured to convert to Islam. Christians and Dervish Muslims faced similar discrimination, Shaheed said.
Iran's government insisted that nobody is expelled from universities or imprisoned merely for holding certain beliefs and accused Baha'i groups of staging a "political and media campaign."
The Baha'i International Community, which says it represents 5 million members of the faith, rejected Iran's defense and said little has changed for Baha'is since Rouhani's election.
"What we see is the continuation of the usual tactics, attempting to delude the international community and to appease the family of nations, even as repression continues at home in full force," said Bani Dugal, the group's representative to the U.N.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.