US urges Tehran to release prisoners amid coronavirus crisis
The United States on Tuesday called for Iran to release all American prisoners held in the country as the coronavirus outbreak reportedly spreads through its prisons.
"The United States will hold the Iranian regime directly responsible for any American deaths. Our response will be decisive," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement.
"Reports that COVID-19 has spread to Iranian prisons are deeply troubling and demand nothing less than the full and immediate release of all American citizens.
"Their detention amid increasingly deteriorating conditions defies basic human decency."
In-depth: Coronavirus 'inching closer' to dual national political inmates at Iranian prison
Iran's response to the deadly coronavirus outbreak, including temporarily releasing 70,000 prisoners, was "too little, too late," a UN rights expert said Tuesday.
Javaid Rehman, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, said Tehran was trying to "fudge" its handling of the outbreak, one of the deadliest outside China, where the disease originated.
"The situation on coronavirus is highly disturbing within Iran," Rehman told reporters at the UN in Geneva.
The mass release has overwhelmingly excluded political prisoners and dual nationals, Rehman added.
British-Iranian academic Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe remains behind bars, despite her deteriorating health as well as her family's claims she might already have contracted the virus, which is especially dangerous for people with underlying health problems.
Kylie Moore-Gilbert, a British-Australian academic imprisoned on espionage charges, is also not among those released. The Islamic studies professor waged a hunger strike for several weeks in December in protest of the conditions in which she has been held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison.
Iran on Tuesday reported 54 new deaths in the past 24 hours, the highest single-day toll since the start of the outbreak there. That brought the numbers killed in the country to 291 out of 8,042 infected.
The Iranian judiciary's Mizan Online official news agency cited Asghar Jahangir, the head of Iran's prisons organization, as saying that "about 70,000 prisoners" had been released in a bid to combat the outbreak.
Iran said in December it was ready for more prisoner swaps with the United States after it secured the return of scientist Massoud Soleimani in exchange for Xiyue Wang, a Chinese-born American held in the Islamic republic.
Decades-old tensions between Tehran and Washington have escalated steeply since 2018, when US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew from a landmark 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on Iran.