Iran prison chief replaced after alleged beatings

DUBAI Wed Apr 23, 2014 2:12pm EDT

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DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran said on Wednesday it had replaced the country's prisons chief amid an uproar over alleged beating of political prisoners last week in Tehran's notorious Evin Prison

Families of the dozens of political prisoners held there have been protesting outside parliament and the presidential complex and the issue came up in the legislature on Wednesday.

The prison incident last Thursday drew attention to human rights in the Islamic republic at a time the new reformist President Hassan Rouhani struggles to show a gentler face for his country and dispel suspicions about its nuclear program.

The semi-official Fars news agency carried an official announcement that prison chief Gholam-Hossein Esmaeeli had been switched to another job in the judiciary.

As legislators called for an inquiry into the beatings allegations, government spokesman Mohammad-Bagher Nobakht said a committee had been set up. "We will provide a report once the committee does its job," ISNA news agency quoted him as saying.

Judicial officials deny prisoners were beaten. Esmaeeli has been at the center of the controversy over the past week and it was not clear if Rouhani had anything to do with his transfer.

Under Iran's constitution, the president's authority does not extend over the prison system and past efforts to influence decisions in the conservative-dominated judiciary have failed.

Esmaeeli's transfer to two key positions simultaneously - head of an appellate court and of the Tehran municipal judiciary - prompted criticism from human rights activist Hadi Ghaemi.

"This will only make him immune from accountability and possible investigation," Ghaemi, of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, told Reuters by telephone.

(Reporting by Mehrdad Balali and Michelle Moghtader; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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