GENEVA (Reuters) - The United Nations' top human rights official on Tuesday urged Iran to free an imprisoned female lawyer whose health is deteriorating due to a hunger strike and to lift a travel ban on her family.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay said she was concerned that the Iranian authorities appeared to be punishing activists and their relatives to try to curb freedom of expression, while stepping up executions of drug offenders.
The jailed lawyer and rights activist - Nasrin Sotoudeh - is serving out a six-year jail sentence after being arrested in September 2010 on suspicion of spreading propaganda and conspiring to harm state security.
She started a hunger strike on October 17 to protest against her conditions inside Tehran's Evin prison and the authorities have imposed a travel ban and other restrictions on her husband and 12-year-old daughter.
Sotoudeh and Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi were awarded the European Union's Sakharov prize for human rights and freedom of thought last month. On Friday, the United States demanded that Iran free her.
"The High Commissioner urges the government of Iran to urgently address Ms. Sotoudeh's situation by lifting the travel ban and other sanctions on her family, which cannot be justified under international law," Rupert Colville, a spokesman for Pillay, told a news briefing.
"She spent almost three weeks in solitary confinement and was deprived of family visits for several weeks after she began her hunger strike," he said, renewing an appeal for her swift release.
Iranian legislators are due to visit Evin prison and look into her case amid concerns over her deteriorating condition, Iranian media reported on Sunday.
Pillay was concerned that family members of human rights activists and lawyers were frequently being "targeted" by the authorities, Colville said.
"The prosecution and imposition of sanctions and other limitations on human rights activists and their family members reflects a disturbing trend apparently aimed at curbing the freedoms of expression, opinion and association," he said.
Last month, a Tehran revolutionary court sentenced Massumeh Dehghan, the wife of jailed lawyer and human rights defender Abdolfattah Soltani, to a one-year prison term, suspended for five years, coupled with a five-year travel ban, he said.
She was charged with spreading propaganda against the government for travelling abroad and receiving the Nuremberg human rights prize which had been awarded to her husband, Colville said.
Iranian police said on Saturday that the head of Tehran's cyber police unit had been dismissed over the death in custody of blogger Sattar Beheshti, a case that sparked an international outcry.
Pillay was equally worried about the increase in the number of executions in Iran, said Colville, saying that many of those killed had been convicted of drug-related offences.
"There are credible reports, in many cases corroborated by the government itself, that the number of executions carried out between 7-20 November is at least 32, with some sources indicating the figure is as high as 81," he said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Osborn)