DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran has temporarily freed about 70,000 prisoners to combat the spread of the coronavirus in jails, the head of the judiciary said on Monday, as officials reported hundreds of new infections and dozens more deaths across the country.
Iran has reported 595 new infections and 43 new deaths within the past 24 hours. This takes total cases of coronavirus to 7,161, with 237 deaths, the health ministry spokesman said.
Judiciary chief Ebrahim Raisi announced the temporary release of prisoners as Iranian authorities seek to counter one of the worst national outbreaks outside China, where the new virus originated, and one of the highest death rates from the illness.
Raisi said the release of prisoners would continue “to the point where it doesn’t create insecurity in society”, according to the Mizan news site of the judiciary.
He did not give further details or specify when those released would have to return to jail.
Iranian prisoners have been infected with coronavirus, the United Nations said on Monday.
“Recent reports indicate that the COVID-19 virus has spread inside Iranian prisons,” Javaid Rehman, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Iran, said in Geneva on Monday.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei canceled his speech in the city of Mashhad for Persian new year, which is on March 20, as part of a campaign to prevent further infections, according to a statement on his official site.
“The ceremony for the speech of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic revolution, which happens every year on the first day of the new year in (Imam Reza’s holy shrine) will not take place this year and the Supreme Leader will not travel to holy Mashhad,” the statement said, adding the decision was based on the recommendation of health officials to minimize travel and avoid large gatherings.
Officials have expressed concern about the possibility of infections spreading during Nowruz, the beginning of the Iranian new year, which is usually a period when families travel to vacation spots around the country.
The health ministry has told Iranians to stay home and imposed restrictions on travel between provinces.
Despite the warnings, however, authorities have said there has been heavy traffic in recent days on roads headed north to the Caspian Sea, a traditional Nowruz vacation spot.
(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Pravin Char anr Mark Potter)