Why Iran has freed 85,000 prisoners to combat coronavirus

UN urged Tehran to release inmates, but jail conditions prompt concern that the move has come too late

 Tehran, Iran
Iranian firefighters disinfect streets in the capital Tehran
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Iran has temporarily freed around 85,000 prisoners, including political prisoners, as part of a drastic response to combat the spread of the new coronavirus.

According to Reuters, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, said on 10 March that he had asked Tehran to free all political prisoners temporarily from its “overcrowded and disease-ridden jails”, with Iranian judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili confirming the decision this week.

During the announcement, Esmaili stated that “some 50% of those released are security-related prisoners”, a term that Iran uses to describe political prisoners, says Patrick Wintour at The Guardian.

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“Also in the jails we have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak,” Esmaili added.

Iran has been one of the hardest-hit nations so far, with its death toll from the coronavirus reaching 988 from a total of 16,169 cases so far. Only China and Italy have recorded more cases and fatalities.

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The Daily Mail notes that Esmaili did not elaborate on when those released would have to return to prison, nor did Iran clarify which prisoners had been released.

“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,” says Reuters.

Human Rights Watch said last Wednesday that it had received reports that prisoners in Iran had tested positive for coronavirus, prompting fears that the entire system may be at risk. And one British-Iranian political prisoner being held in Tehran on spying charges last month sent a recorded message saying that the jail he is in was in “chaos”, The Guardian reports. He was reportedly transferred three days earlier within Iran’s notorious Evin prison to ward four – one of the wards he claims housed coronavirus victims previously.

ITV News reports that one high-profile prisoner to be released under Iran’s new strategy is Mohammad Hossein Karroubi, the son of opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, who was in jail for nearly two months.

It is not yet known if British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe will be released from prison, having been imprisoned on espionage charges in 2016.

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