GENEVA (Reuters) - United Nations human rights investigators called on Iran on Wednesday to cease arresting, harassing and prosecuting journalists and other activists to pave the way for free debate ahead of parliamentary elections in February.
In a joint statement, they urged the Islamic Republic to release all journalists, including Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, who have been "arbitrarily and unlawfully arrested for their peaceful exercise of fundamental rights".
Rezaian, who holds U.S. and Iranian citizenship, was arrested in July 2014 on espionage charges and convicted a month ago in a verdict revealed by the Iranian news service ISNA.
President Hassan Rouhani called for more transparent media regulations on Sunday in an apparent attempt to shield journalists from a crackdown by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a hardline force virulently opposed to Western influence.
Rouhani is a pragmatic moderate who seeks better ties with the West. But ultimate power lies with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who controls both the IRGC and the judiciary.
Iranian intelligence and security officials have arrested a number of journalists this month in what appears to be a "new crackdown on freedom of expression and the media", said Ahmed Shaheed, U.N. special rapporteur on Iran.
Five journalists were arrested on Nov. 2 by plainclothes members of the Revolutionary Guard's intelligence units and accused of taking part in an infiltration network and seeking to undermine Iran on behalf of Western governments, he said. More than a dozen other journalists and activists were reported to have been summoned for interrogation.
"The government of Iran should not silence critical or dissenting voices under the guise of vague and unsubstantiated national security concerns," said Shaheed, a former foreign minister of the Maldives serving in the independent post.
At least 45 journalists were in custody in Iran as of April, one of the highest rates worldwide, he said.
"Freedom of expression is central to guarantee open, free and fair political processes," said David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur on the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay)