Iran says it has freed 80 prisoners ahead of President Rohani's visit to UN

DUBAI (Reuters) - The Iranian authorities have pardoned 80 prisoners ahead of President Hassan Rohani's visit to the United Nations in New York this week, the Iranian media reported on Monday.

In a tentative sign that hardline policies are starting to soften following moderate conservative Mr Rohani's inauguration last month, the authorities freed prominent human-rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and at least 10 other prisoners last week.

On Monday, judiciary spokesman Mohseni Ejei told a news conference that 80 prisoners had been pardoned, including some arrested over protests that followed the disputed re-election of former hardline President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009.

Mr Ejei's comments suggest the total of 80 includes those freed last week in a move seen as intended to dampen Western criticism of Iran's human rights record ahead of Mr Rohani's address to the UN General Assembly.

Last week's releases came after Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said he supported "flexibility" in Iranian diplomacy, a rare signal that he might endorse a shift in Teheran's stance in its problematic relations with the West.

"A number of security prisoners were granted amnesty by the Supreme Leader," Mr Ejei said. "They can be granted pardon on the suggestion of the head of the judiciary and that can include all or part of their punishments."

The US and its allies have intensified economic sanctions on Iran in recent years in an attempt to force Teheran to open its nuclear programme to greater international scrutiny.

Mr Rohani left Teheran for the United Nations on Monday, saying he would present the "true face of Iran" and pursue talks and cooperation with the West to end Iran's nuclear dispute.

Iran says its nuclear programme is purely peaceful.

Washington and many European governments suspect that Teheran is trying to develop nuclear weapons.