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UN rights envoy urges Iran to investigate deaths

GENEVA, March 16 (Reuters) - The United Nations investigator for human rights in Iran on Thursday called on the government to probe some 50 suspicious deaths of intellectuals and dissidents in recent years.

Maurice Copithorne, a Canadian jurist, also urged the government of moderate President Mohammad Khatami to reform Iran's legal system and grant greater freedom to the press.

In a report to the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, which meets in Geneva on Monday to examine violations worldwide, he condemned punishment by stoning and amputation and said "torture in all its forms is still not an unusual event in Iran."

Copithorne, whose report was written before a pro-reform coalition backing Khatami won parliamentary polls last month, said human rights in Iran remained a "work in progress."

He said promised investigations into the disappearances and suspicious deaths of intellectuals and dissident political figures in late 1998 had stalled. There were reports attributing responsibility to past and present security officials, he added.

"The scandal has now raised such broad implications for the government as well as such public scepticism that only the most thorough public inquiry and purgative action is likely to restore the government's credibility in terms not only of law and order but of its respect for the most fundamental human rights," Copithorne said.

He accused law enforcement agencies and the judiciary of denying human rights in student demonstrations in Tehran and Tabriz in July. No disciplinary action had been taken against a uniformed group of some 400 men bussed to the site who reportedly systematically ransacked dormitories, assaulted students and took a number of them prisoner, he added. Reforming Iran's legal system should be given top priority, according to Copithorne. He said reformist newspapers were susceptible to "arbitrary discipline" by tribunals for acts which did not appear to be contrary to any legal norm.

"The need for a free discourse is an integral component of the civil society that the President seeks to build," he added.