Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 31 May 2020

Iran temporarily frees 85,000 prisoners amid coronavirus

Those released to stem the outbreak included political and security-related prisoners

Iran has temporarily freed about 85,000 prisoners, including political prisoners, a spokesman for its judiciary said on Tuesday, in response to the coronavirus epidemic.

But the family of Dubai-based businessman Siamak Namazi say his request to be temporarily released from Evin Prison has been refused.

Mr Namazi was jailed for 10 years for espionage in 2016 for what his family claim were trumped up charges.

On Tuesday, Iran's Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said: "Some 50 per cent of those released are security-related prisoners ... Also in the jails we have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak."

The announcement comes after the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, asked Tehran to free all political prisoners temporarily from its overcrowded and disease-ridden jails to help stem the spread of coronavirus.

It comes as Iran's death toll from the coronavirus has reached 853 and a total of 14,991 people have been confirmed infected across the country, one of the worst national outbreaks outside China, where the new virus originated.

Mr Esmaili has not elaborated on when those released would have to return to jail.

Mr Namazi, a US-Iranian joint national who had lived in the UAE since 2007, had requested furlough earlier this month due to the outbreak of coronoavirus in Iran after learning that a fellow prisoner had tested positive for the virus.

His brother Babak Namazi said: We are horrified by the judiciary's arbitrary decision to keep Siamak exposed to the coronavirus in Evin Prison while it has released over 70,000 other prisoners and continues to release more.

"It is outrageous that even now, under such dangerous conditions, Iran refuses to show the basic humanity and decency it has so vociferously demanded from others and instead continues to inflict senseless suffering upon my family. I implore the authorities to reconsider and show compassion. Today we must remind ourselves of our humanity.”

Mr Namazi was arrested in Iran two years after publishing an article critical of the US sanctions regime, saying it prevented the flow of medicine and medical equipment to Iran.

Jared Genser, the Namazi family’s pro bono counsel, said: “We demand that Iranian authorities reverse their decision immediately and grant Siamak a furlough to allow him to safely self-quarantine.

"If there were ever a time for a humanitarian gesture by the regime, it is now. Otherwise, the judiciary and prosecutors’ office shall be responsible for any harm that comes to Siamak under such grave circumstances.”

Earlier in March, Mr Rehman said that Iranian prisoners had been infected with coronavirus.

The prisoner release has come as hardline Shiite faithful in Iran pushed their way into the courtyards of two major shrines just closed over fears of the new coronavirus, Iranian state media reported Tuesday, as the Islamic Republic pressed on with its struggle to control the Mideast's worst outbreak.

Roughly nine out of 10 of the over 17,000 cases of the new virus confirmed across the Middle East come from Iran, where authorities denied for days the risk the outbreak posed.

Officials have now implemented new checks for people trying to leave major cities ahead of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on Friday, but have hesitated to quarantine the areas.

Late on Monday night, angry crowds stormed into the courtyards of Mashhad's Imam Reza shrine and Qom's Fatima Masumeh shrine. Crowds typically pray there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, touching and kissing the shrine. That's worried health officials, who for weeks ordered Iran's Shiite clergy to close them.

Earlier on Monday, the state TV had announced the shrines' closure, sparking the demonstrations.

"We are here to say that Tehran is damn wrong to do that!" one Shiite cleric shouted at the shrine in Mashhad, according to online video. Others joined him in chanting: "The health minister is damn wrong to do that, the president is damn wrong to do that!"

Updated: March 17, 2020 04:01 PM

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