June 5, 2006

US rebukes Iran over human trafficking

By Saul Hudson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Iran is one of the world's worst
offenders in allowing women to be sold into the sex trade, the
United States said on Monday in a rebuke that may cloud U.S.
efforts to negotiate over Tehran's nuclear program.

In an annual report on trends involving up to 800,000
victims of human trafficking worldwide, the State Department
downgraded Iran into its worst category, which includes only 12
nations assessed to have done little to stop the trade.

The report cited how a 16-year-old girl trafficking victim
in the Islamic republic was publicly hanged for having sex
outside of marriage in a case where the local governor praised
religious authorities for their "firm approach."

"We have received a number of reports that Iran imprisons
or executes a significant number of trafficking victims," said
John Miller, head of the State Department trafficking office.

But he said it was difficult for the United States to
collect accurate information in Iran because diplomatic
relations have been severed.

Miller acknowledged the rebuke could affect Iran's
deliberations as it decides whether to take up a U.S. offer to
negotiate with Washington and European powers to curb its
nuclear programs. But the two issues were unrelated for the
United States, he said.

"We are concerned about human rights in Iran. We always
have been and we are going to be concerned about human rights
in Iran no matter what happens on the nuclear issue," he said.

The United States is leading an international drive to stop
what it believes is Iran's pursuit of an atomic bomb. Tehran,
an oil exporter, says it needs peaceful nuclear power to
satisfy its growing population's energy demands.

Countries criticized in such U.S. reports typically
complain of hypocrisy and human rights groups say Washington
has lost credibility in issuing rebukes because of abuse
scandals involving Americans, like one at Iraq's Abu Ghraib

This year, for the first time, the annual report
acknowledged that the United States had paid contractors in
Iraq who were later found to have committed widespread abuse of
laborers hired from abroad.

Rights groups and diplomats also say U.S. blacklists
sometimes appear politically motivated.

Friendly countries with major trafficking problems such as
India, which has reached a nuclear cooperation deal with the
Bush administration, avoided being placed in the worst category
despite congressional pressure.

But U.S. antagonists, like Syria -- which was also
downgraded this year -- North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela are in
the worst category for human trafficking and are typically
rebuked in other annual reports such as on terrorism.