Saturday, February 24 1:13 AM SGT
Conservative Iranians "pounced" on headscarf controversy: UN official
Mary Robinson, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who was attending the meeting to prepare for a world conference on racism in Durban later this year, said the issue was "pounced upon" by conservative elements.
Three women from non-governmental organisations who attended the conference in Tehran, which wrapped up Wednesday, objected to having to cover their heads and refused to wear headscarves.
A conservative paper printed a photograph of the women, and Robinson told reporters here that the issue was "being used as a conservative criticism of the holding of the conference and what it was about."
The dispute was "pounced upon by the conservative elements with glee in order to make life more difficult for those in Iran who are seeking to have more opening up and reform," she added.
"I did feel that the visit had definitely underlined the importance of recognising the very tense situation in Iran between conservative elements and those who want to see reform and progressive change," she added.
Robinson, a former Irish president, also said she protested to the Iranian authorities about the obstacles which two groups wanting to attend the meeting had experienced.
Representatives from the Bahai religion, and the Jewish group, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which chases suspected Nazi war criminals, had difficulty getting visas and were unable to participate.
However, Robinson stressed that 150 NGOS had taken part in the conference, the fourth and last regional meeting before the world conference against racism, set to take place from August 31 to September 7 in South Africa.
She said she raised concerns about freedom of expression, newspaper closures and the arrest of journalists during a meeting with Iranian President Mohammad Khatami.
"He made a comment that he was concerned if anybody was imprisoned for their expression," Robinson told reporters here.
Iran's chief justice Mahmud Hashemi Sharudi had also outlined planned reforms including the reduction in the number of offences punishable by the death penalty, she said.
According to figures by the UN's special human rights representative for Iran, several hundred executions are carried out in Iran a year, though exact figures are unknown, Robinson said.
©Copyright 2001, AFP