Iran has temporarily freed around 85,000 prisoners including political detainees in a bid to stop the spread of coronavirus, the government said today.
Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said half of those released were ‘security-related prisoners’.
‘Also in the jails we have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak,’ the spokesman said.
The United Nations has warned that inmates have already been infected in Iran’s overcrowded and disease-ridden jails, and called for all political prisoners to be released.
The judiciary spokesman did not elaborate on when those released would have to return to prison.
Iran’s death toll from the coronavirus has reached 853 and a total of 14,991 people have been confirmed infected in one of the worst outbreaks outside China.
The regime has been widely criticised for its handling of the outbreak, including for its refusal to shut down holy pilgrimage sites.
Most cases across the Middle East have been linked to Iran, with many countries shutting down travel.
Javaid Rehman, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, urged Tehran earlier this month to free all its political prisoners.
Iran had already announced the release of 70,000 prisoners, but Rehman said only those serving sentences of less than five years had been freed.
Political prisoners and others charged with heavier sentences linked to their participation in protest marches remained in jail,’ he said.
‘A number of dual and foreign nationals are at real risk if they have not… got it [coronavirus], they are really fearful of the conditions,’ Rehman said.
‘This is also my worrying concern and therefore I have recommended to the state of the Islamic Republic of Iran to release all prisoners on temporary release,’ he said.
Iran previously said it had 189,500 prisoners, according to the report Rehman submitted to the Human Rights Council in January.
They are believed to include hundreds arrested during or after anti-government protests in November.
In a February report, Rehman described how overcrowded and unhygienic conditions were causing the spread of infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis C.
Quoting inmates, he said prisoners even had to provide their own soap.
The United States has also urged Iran to release political prisoners, including Americans held on spying charges.
‘The United States will hold the Iranian regime directly responsible for any American deaths,’ U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier in March.
In response, Iran’s foreign ministry said Tehran had similar concerns about several dozen Iranians held in U.S. prisons, mostly for violating sanctions.
‘The state of America’s prisons and their health situation are worrying … we are ready to bring the jailed Iranians in America back to Iran,’ spokesman Abbas Mousavi said.
‘American officials should pay serious attention to the health conditions of the Iranians who have been taken hostage in America. They have been imprisoned without any legal basis.’
Pompeo said that any nation offering aid to Tehran should seek a reciprocal humanitarian gesture of releasing prisoners.
Washington has long demanded that Iran release American citizens including father and son Baquer and Siamak Namazi, Navy veteran Michael White and former FBI agent Robert Levinson.
Tehran denies it holds people on political grounds, and has mainly accused foreign prisoners of espionage.
Tensions between Tehran and Washington have been at a peak since the U.S. drone strike which killed top general Qassem Soleimani in January 2020.
There were also fears for British-Iranian prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe after her husband Richard Ratcliffe said she was suffering from a ‘strange cold’.
He described her as suffering from a continual cold sweat and as having feelings of nausea at her jail in Tehran.
A group campaigning for her release from custody on spying charges later said she was recovering but had not been properly tested.
Italian prisons have also seen jailhouse riots after inmates were told they could not see relatives over virus fears.