But a more hardline tone came from a senior commander of the powerful Revolutionary Guard, who called for opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and former president Mohammad Khatami to be put on trial. The two have led protesters who charge the June 12 election was rigged in favour of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The difference in tone of the statements could point to some tension at the highest levels of Iran’s power structure between the hardline Revolutionary Guard, an elite military force, and the Islamic leadership which controls the judiciary and may want to send a more moderate message to calm public outrage over prisoner deaths.
Gen Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, the police chief, acknowledged protesters were beaten by their jailers at Kahrizak, the prison on Tehran’s southern outskirts that has been at the centre of abuse claims. But he denied abuse was to blame for any deaths, saying prisoners had died of a virus outbreak.
“This detention centre was built to house dangerous criminals. Housing people related to recent riots caused an outbreak of diseases,” official news agency IRNA quoted Moghaddam as saying. Protesters “died of viral illness and not as a result of beating,” he added, according to another news agency, the semiofficial Fars.
Iran’s Prosecutor General Ghorban Ali Dorri Najafabadi called for those responsible for mistreating detainees to be punished for “violations and carelessness”, IRNA reported.
He said authorities had been told not to take protesters to Kahrizak but they ignored the order. Human rights groups have identified at least three protesters they say died after being detained at Kahrizak.
“Unfortunately, negligence and carelessness by some officials caused the Kahrizak incident, which is not defendable,” IRNA quoted Najafabadi as saying.
Iran’s opposition has seized on claims of abuse at Kahrizak, saying young protesters were tortured to death there.
Perhaps more troubling for the government, however, is that some prominent figures in its own conservative support base also say protesters were murdered in prison and demand that those responsible should be brought to trial.
Stories of widespread abuse at Kahrizak prompted Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to order its closure last month for substandard conditions.
Authorities fired the head of the prison for mismanagement and three guards were detained on charges of mistreating detainees.
Iran has confirmed at least 30 people have died in the worst internal unrest since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, though human rights groups believe the death toll is probably far higher.
Meanwhile, Iran presses forward with a mass trial of more than 100 prominent reformist figures, opposition activists and others accused of offences ranging from rioting to spying and seeking to topple the country’s Islamic rulers.
The trial, which has included televised confessions that rights groups say are likely extracted through pressure, is the government’s latest attempt to crush the opposition.
Iran’s most senior dissident cleric, Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri, has also compared the mass trial and the public confessions to the tactics of former Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein and other authoritarian rulers.