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Iranian political prisoners among 85,000 temporarily released due to coronavirus spread

Reports that the virus has spread in prisons have surfaced online [Getty]

Date of publication: 17 March, 2020

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Iranian authorities said they released some 85,000 prisoners as part of measures to combat the deadly coronavirus.
Some 85,000 detainees, including political prisoners, were temporarily freed in Iran, a spokesman for its judiciary said on Tuesday, as the Islamic Republic struggles to contain the coronavirus epidemic.

"Some 50 percent of those released are security-related prisoners... Also in the jails we have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak," said Gholamhossein Esmaili.

Last week, Iranian authorities said they released 70,000 prisoners, though the Islamic Republic was criticised for leaving political detainees imprisoned.

The release of inmates would continue "to the point where it doesn't create insecurity in society", Judiciary Chief Ebrahim Raisi said, according to the Mizan news site.

Just a day later on 10 March, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman said he had requested Tehran temporarily released political prisoners from its overcrowded and disease-ridden jails to help stem the spread of coronavirus.

Rehman had earlier said Tehran was trying to "fudge" its handling of the outbreak, one of the deadliest outside China, where the disease is believed to have originated.

Read more: Coronavirus 'inching closer' to dual national political inmates at Iranian prison

"The situation on coronavirus is highly disturbing within Iran," Rehman told reporters at the UN in Geneva, noting the initial temporary release programme was an inadequate response.

"We don't know what conditions they have been released on: the bail agreement, for how long precisely," he added.

It would therefore exclude anyone jailed for national security offences, such as those rounded up in the lethal crackdown on protests in November, political prisoners and dual and foreign nationals, he said.

He had recommended to Tehran that it free "all prisoners on temporary release and not have this discriminatory restriction of a threshold".

The authorities should ensure a comprehensive testing scheme, he added, as "many prisoners have expressed concern that the state is not doing enough.

"They are trying to fudge this issue."

Iran had been slow to react to the virus when it broke out, said Rehman, and they were still not doing enough. "We want transparent public outreach and communication," he said.

In his latest report, presented to the UN Human Rights Council this week, Rehman expressed alarm at the conditions of detention in Iran.

In Iranian prisons and detention centres, overcrowding, poor nutrition and the lack of basic hygiene were "a recipe for disease", he said.

But Rehman also warned that US sanctions, reimposed after Washington pulled out of a landmark nuclear deal, were leading to shortages of essential medicines and medical equipment in Iran.

Rapid rise in cases

Iran has been scrambling to contain the rapid spread of coronavirus in the country - which so far has infected nearly 16,169 people and killed more than 988 - according to official figures.

"Reports by more than 56 laboratories indicated that we have had 1,178 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection in the past 24 hours," health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said in a televised news conference on Tuesday.

"This brings the total number of confirmed cases to 16,169 as of today noon," he added.

Jahanpour added that 5,389 people who had been infected with the disease had been discharged from hospital "with general good health".

The COVID-19 virus, which was first detected in China's Wuhan in December, has killed more than 7,471 people worldwide, while over 186,689 infections have been confirmed.

The majority of those that become infected experience only mild or moderate symptoms, including fever and a dry cough.

However, concerns have been raised for the elderly and those with existing health issues, who have reportedly suffered with more severe complications, including pneumonia and even death.

Read more: How Gulf countries succeeded where Iran failed on containing coronavirus

As of yet, there are no known treatments for the virus, though more than 80,837 have already recovered from the infection.

The World Health Organisation has confirmed those who experience a milder version of the virus recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover.

As the pandemic continues to spread across the world, dozens of research groups around the world are racing to create a vaccine while governments continue to impose strict restrictions or "lockdowns" to help stem the spread of the virus.

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