GENEVA - The top UN human rights official called on Iran on Wednesday to release a spiritual figure sentenced to death at the weekend and end its longtime "problematic" use of executions.
Iran's human rights record is under increasing international scrutiny following a deal last month with world powers in which Tehran will see economically crippling sanctions against it lifted in exchange for curbing its disputed nuclear program.
The Islamic Republic is reported to have executed more than 600 prisoners so far this year, while nuclear negotiations proceeded, after executing at least 753 people last year, a statement from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said.
High Commissioner Zeid Ra'ad Al-Hussein said Iran had carried out many executions for drug offenses, some for crimes committed as minors, as well as cases with "broad, ill-defined charges."
Mohammad Ali Taheri, a writer and founder of the spiritual movement Erfan e-Halgheh (Inter-Universalism), was arrested in 2011 and given five years in prison on charges of insulting Islamic pieties. His wife was detained briefly last year after publication of his letter to a UN investigator about abuses in Iranian prisons and new charges were then laid against him.
Taheri, held in Tehran's Evin prison, was sentenced to death by the Revolutionary Court on Saturday on a charge of "fesad fel arz" (corruption on earth), Zeid said.
"Taheri's multiple convictions on a variety of vague charges, his alleged detention in solitary confinement and now his sentencing to death bring into stark focus serious issues with the administration of justice and the terribly worrying use of the death penalty in Iran," Zeid said.
"For an individual to be sentenced to death for peaceful exercise of freedom of expression, religion or belief is an absolute outrage -- and a clear violation of international human rights law," he said, calling on Iran to drop the charges and free Taheri forthwith.
He also urged Iran to impose an immediate moratorium on all executions and to work with his office and other partners on alternative strategies to combat crime, noting that the "global trend is towards abolition."
Under international law, including a key civil and political rights pact ratified by Iran, the death penalty may be applied only for "the most serious crimes," generally interpreted to mean only crimes involving intentional murder, Zeid said.