TEHRAN 15 Feb. (IPS) A team of human rights experts from the United Nations has arrived in Iran - the first visit of its kind in seven years. The United Nations working group will be in the country for nearly two weeks and will investigate allegations of illicit or arbitrary detention.

The UN said in a statement the five members of the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention would start their task immediately upon arrival in the Iranian capital early Sunday morning. Their visit will include meetings with government officials and the judiciary and a trip to Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

It comes after last year's UN report accused the judiciary - dominated by conservatives - of bearing a heavy responsibility for the ongoing human rights violations.

The group consists of five independent experts from different countries and is headed by Louis Joinet of France.

Their 12-day visit will include meetings with officials from the ministries for foreign affairs, interior and justice. They are also scheduled to meet magistrates, and representatives of the revolutionary courts, and visit prisons in Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz and Jazd.

Mr. Maurice Copithorne, the last UN special rapporteur who had been banned from visiting the country since 1996, said in his last report to UN Human Rights Commission, that the Iranian leader-controlled Judiciary was responsible for human rights violations.

Iran invited the UN back last June, during a visit to the UNís Geneva Head Quarters by Dr. Mohammad Ardeshir Larijani, an advisor to the Judiciary Head on international affairs, who briefed the human rights situation in the Islamic Republic of Iran with officials from the Commission.

Dr. Karim Lahiji, the Head of the Iranian Human Rights Committee in exile and a deputy to the general secretary of the Paris-based International League of Human Rights Federation said he could not say if the Iranian authorities would cooperate sincerely with the mission or give the experts a tourist view of the Iranian prisons?

He said it is possible that more groups, including one, dealing with violence against women, torture, abduction and the situation in the "unofficial" prisons will visit the country later this year.

Human rights groups have described the situation as serious, with no real signs of improvement.

Earlier this month, the European Commissioner for External Affairs, Chris Patten, visited Tehran to start negotiations on a Trade and Co-operation Agreement that he tied with the respect by Iran of human rights conditions and distancing from militant Arab and Palestinian organisations opposed to peace with Israel and renounce acquiring weapons of mass destruction.

"If Iran was serious about engaging with the EU, they must improve their human rights record, starting with a ban on stoning and an anti-torture bill", he said.

The Commission on Human Rights established the Working Group in 1991 to investigate allegations of arbitrary deprivation of liberty. Since then the panel has carried out fact-finding missions to Bahrain, Bhutan, China, Indonesia, Mexico, Nepal, Peru and Viet Nam. It has also visited Australia, Romania and the United Kingdom to look into the handling of "unauthorized arrivals", immigrants and asylum-seekers. ENDS UN RIGHTS MISSION IN IRAN 15203.