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Iran declared Saturday that education and rehabilitation had replaced punishment for convicts and invited international organizations to inspect the country's prisons. As part of the new policy, journalists were granted a tour of a penitentiary where tens of thousands of political dissidents have been detained, tortured and executed since 1964.

"The doors of our prisons are open to everyone," Assadollah Lajevardi, the head of Iran's prison system, said at a news conference.Nonethelesss, the authorities denied requests by journalists to visit the solitary wing of Evin Penitentiary, where political prisoners are believed to be held.

It was the second time this year that members of the press were allowed inside Evin. The three-hour tour of prisoners' workshops, clinics and cells was seen as an attempt to address recent reports of human-rights abuses.

In a report released this week, the U.N. human-rights commissioner accused Iran of such things as violating the rights of women and religious minorities, mistreating prisoners and failing to provide freedom of expression.

"Before the revolution," Lajevardi said, "the prisons were managed by the police. The treatment of prisoners is no longer disciplinary, but educational. We are concerned about the education of both convicts and our personnel. We think that no punishment is worse than being locked up."

Lajevardi said religious instruction has been the best method for reforming prisoners.

According to official figures, more than 100,000 people are held in Iranian prisons, 5 percent of whom are women. With more than 52,000 detainees convicted on drug charges, officials underscored the importance of rehabilitation programs, including workshops which reportedly employ 21,000 in textiles, carpentry and farming.

In scores of reports during the last decade, human-rights organizations have documented the arrests and executions of tens of thousands of Iranians since 1979 for their political beliefs.

Asserting that there were no more than eight political prisoners in Iranian jails, Lajevardi maintained that former political prisoners had "repented" and been released, and that "very few political prisoners have been executed." Human-rights organizations put the number of political executions since 1979 at 4,000 to 5,000.

Independent analysts say the recent releases of dissidents show that the system may be moving toward more tolerance. "Right now, people can criticize economic policies," said an economics professor at Tehran Open University who insisted on anonymity. "The prison situation is much more relaxed than the early years of the revolution."

Insisting that the number of Iranian prisoners was not significant, considering that Iranian law treated behaviors like homosexuality and adultery as criminal, Lajevardi said that Western analysts were biased in their criticism of Iran's human-rights record.