The U.S. State Department Wednesday called on the Iranian government to cease what it said is the systematic repression of political dissidents and activists from ethnic and religious minorities. The comments came in response to reports of mistreatment of a jailed Azeri-Iranian prisoner, Abbas Lisani. VOA's Davd Gollust reports from the State Department.
The Bush administration has joined human rights groups in taking up the Lisani case, which it says is indicative of a broader pattern of repression by the Iranian government.
Amnesty International says Lisani, a long-time activist for Iran's Azeri minority, is on a hunger strike in an Iranian prison to protest the refusal of authorities to grant him medical leave, and their harassment of his family for publicizing the case.
Lisani's latest jail term began in October after he was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison, and 50 lashes, for allegedly spreading anti-government propaganda
The charge stemmed from a demonstration by ethnic Azeris in the northwestern Iranian city of Ardabil in May of 2006 after a government newspaper published a cartoon seen as offensive to the group.
Amnesty said Lisani has numerous health problems, some that may be torture-related, and is being held in solitary confinement in an unheated prison cell where temperatures can fall to minus 10 degrees Celsius at night.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said Iran has banned the Azeri language in schools, harassed Azeri activists and unjustly jailed activists like Lisani for advocating cultural and linguistic rights.
He said the United States calls on Iran's government to cease what he termed the systematic repression of citizens, to respect their human rights, and to release those, including Lisani, who are jailed for insisting on universal rights of speech, press, assembly, worship and fair labor standards.
"We are deeply concerned by the [Iranian] regime's continuing repression of Iran's minority ethnic and religious groups including Azeris, Kurds, Bahai, ethnic Arabs and others," McCormack said. "The regime's repression effects religious minorities, students, women, labor unions, journalists and academics. We are working with the international community through the United Nations, foreign governments and international non-governmental organizations to focus attention on the Iranian regime's continued abuse of its own citizens, and to press for improvements in its dismal human rights record."
The comments came amid high tensions between the United States and Iran over alleged Iranian support for militias fighting U.S. troops in Iraq and its defiance of the December U.N. Security Council resolution demanding an end to Iranian uranium-enrichment activity.
But spokesman McCormack depicted it as a confrontation not between Tehran and Washington but between Iran and the broader world community.
He said Iran could erase all the problems by simply not engaging in the kind of behavior that has made it what he termed an outlier in international affairs, and by accepting what he said is a very attractive offer by world powers on the nuclear issue.
In June of last year, the United States, Britain, France Germany and Russia offered Iran a broad range of political and commercial incentives in exchange for subjecting its nuclear program to greater international scrutiny.
The December 23 U.N. resolution imposing sanctions on Tehran came after it defied a Security Council call for a suspension of enrichment-related activity widely seen as weapons-related. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only.
McCormack stressed the United States' readiness to break a 27-year diplomatic freeze and engage Iran directly in negotiations, if it met the U.N. nuclear terms.