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Voicing alarm at reports that at least 66 people have been executed in Iran in January alone, including several political activists, the United Nations human rights chief today once again called on

Voicing alarm at reports that at least 66 people have been executed in Iran in January alone, including several political activists, the United Nations human rights chief today once again called on the Government to halt the use of the death penalty.

The majority of executions were reportedly carried out in relation to drug offences, but at least three political prisoners were among those hanged, states a news release issued by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).

“We have urged Iran, time and again, to halt executions,” said High Commissioner Navi Pillay. “I am very dismayed that instead of heeding our calls, the Iranian authorities appear to have stepped up the use of the death penalty.”

There are at least three known cases in which political activists were executed. Jafar Kazemi, Mohammad Ali Haj Aqaei and another man whose name was not disclosed were affiliated with banned political parties. Mr. Kazemi and Mr. Aqaei were arrested in September 2009 during protests. All three individuals were convicted of mohareb or “enmity against God,” and hanged last month.

“Dissent is not a crime,” Ms. Pillay stressed, recalling that Iran is party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees the right to free expression and to free association.

“It is absolutely unacceptable for individuals to be imprisoned for association with opposition groups, let alone be executed for their political views or affiliations.”

She also condemned the two instances in which public executions were held, despite a circular issued in January 2008 by the head of the judiciary that banned public executions. In addition, she voiced deep concern that a large number of people reportedly remain on death row, including more political prisoners, drug offenders and even juvenile offenders.

“As Iran is no doubt aware, the international community as a whole is moving towards abolition of the death penalty in law or in practice. I call upon Iran to establish a moratorium on executions with a view to abolishing the death penalty,” stated the High Commissioner.

“At a minimum, I call upon them to respect international standards guaranteeing due process and the protection of the rights of those facing the death penalty, to progressively restrict its use and reduce the number of offences for which it may be imposed.”