TEHRAN, Iran -- Iranian officials took the rare step yesterday of allowing international journalists to visit parts of the capital's notorious Evin prison in an attempt to dispel what they say are unfair impressions of their nation's human rights image.
Justice Minister Jamal Karimirad said the tour, believed to be the first of an Iranian prison by foreign journalists since 1994, had been arranged to counter criticism of Iran's human rights record ahead of the first session of the new United Nations Human Rights Council next week.
"We want to change this impression that exists," said Abbas Khamizadeh, superintendent of the facility, as 20 journalists were shown a women's wing, the clinic and the kitchen. "Evin prison of today is not the same Evin of several years ago."
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch reported this year that respect for human rights in Iran is deteriorating.
"Treatment of detainees has worsened in Evin prison, as well as detention centers operated clandestinely by the judiciary and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards," the report said. "The authorities have subjected those imprisoned for peaceful expression of their political views to torture and ill treatment."
Last year, the head of Iran's judiciary, Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, acknowledged serious human rights violations in the prison system, including torture, illegal detentions and coercive interrogation techniques.
During the two-hour tour, journalists were allowed to speak with female inmates but were not allowed to visit men's wings or better-known prisoners.
The women's wing appeared clean and tidy with up to 10 bunk beds in each large room.
It was to this or a similar wing in Evin that Canadian-Iranian journalist Zahra Kazemi was sent in June 2003 after being arrested outside the prison for photographing a protest. She died after being beaten while in custody.
Yesterday, there was no sign of tension. On the wall was a chart of prison activities, such as visits to the library or gym.
Many of the 375 female inmates were young women serving sentences for illicit relations with men. Sex outside marriage is illegal in Iran, and adultery could carry a sentence of stoning.
"I am still in shock. It's not a real world here," said Nazanin Jalilvand, 20, whose boyfriend escaped. Another woman said she was serving a four-year term on the same charge.
Ashraf Ulsadat, 70, said she was sentenced to two years for being unable to repay a $4,000 debt.
Authorities deny holding any political prisoners in Evin.
"We do not have any legal definition for political prisoners. Some of those that are held here are charged with acting against national security," said Sohrab Soleimani, head of the provincial prisons bureau. Though it has been widely believed that hundreds of political prisoners are held at Evin, Soleimani said only 14 to 15 inmates fall into the "national security" category.
A young woman in the tailoring workshop who declined to give her name said she and her husband had been arrested for publishing a book that challenged the official interpretation of Islam.
Officials would not let journalists visit the wings that house prisoners such as Professor Ramin Jahanbegloo, an internationally known philosopher arrested in April. A week later, authorities said he was being held as a spy.
The justice minister confirmed reports that Jahanbegloo was undergoing interrogations without access to a lawyer. "It's a security case, and in cases such as this, while the investigations are continuing, they cannot have access to their lawyers," Karimirad said.
Authorities refused to allow reporters to visit two journalists arrested last month for publishing a cartoon that depicted a cockroach speaking Azeri, the language of Iran's largest ethnic minority. The cartoon led to 10 days of unrest.
Kasra Naji writes for the Los Angeles Times.