By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA (Reuters) - Repression of Iranian women and activists has worsened under President Hassan Rouhani despite his reformist agenda, but Iran could act to improve its record if it clinches a nuclear deal with major powers, a U.N. rights investigator said on Monday.
Some 252 people have been executed in Iran already this year, on top of 753 executions throughout last year that was the highest annual figure since 2002, according to Ahmed Shaheed, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran.
Over half the executions were for drug offences. But a report by Shaheed last week said the executions for drug crimes in Iran did not meet the internationally accepted threshold of "most serious crimes" required for use of the death penalty as stipulated by international law.
He spoke in Geneva as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif resumed talks on Iran's disputed nuclear program in the Swiss city of Lausanne to try to narrow gaps before a March 31 deadline for an outline political agreement.
"There is a lot of concern amongst the Iranian society that the nuclear file may be casting a shadow over the human rights discussion ... My view however is that if there is improvement in terms of the engagement on security issues, there is potential for improvement in other areas as engagement widens," Shaheed told a news briefing.
But the Islamic Republic "continues to execute more individuals per capita than any country in the world" and jails more journalists than almost any other, he said. Some 100 members of the Baha'i minority and 92 Christians were in prison.
"Regrettably, authorities in Iran continue to harass, arrest, prosecute and imprison members of civil society who express criticism of the government or publicly deviate from officially sanctioned narratives," he told the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Iran's ambassador Mohsen Naziri Asl accused Shaheed of showing "the empty half of the glass, ignoring the positive developments" and being silent on "unjust sanctions" against the Islamic Republic.
U.S. Ambassador Keith Harper said that Iran had harassed and arrested activists solely for having contacted Shaheed. "Over the past year, the government shut down media outlets that were critical of government policies," he said.
Rouhani has failed to create a freer society since his landslide election on a progressive platform in 2013 but has urged patience in bringing about liberalization, something resisted by Iran's hardline security services and judiciary.
"In my view the overall situation has worsened as indicated by the surge in executions and ... other legislation in place which would further undermine the space for the NGO community, the space for the legal community, the space for political parties and for human rights defenders," Shaheed said.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)