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Coronavirus: Iran releases 85,000 prisoners in effort to combat virus

A judiciary spokesperson said tens of thousands of prisoners, including political prisoners, had been released
This picture taken on 14 March 2020 shows a general view of Hafte Tir square in Iran's capital Tehran (AFP)

Iran has released around 85,000 prisoners, including political prisoners, from its jails to combat the spread of coronavirus, a judicial spokesperson said.

"Some 50 percent of those released are security-related prisoners... also in the jails we have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak," said Gholamhossein Esmaili on Tuesday.

On 10 March, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran said he had asked Tehran to free all political prisoners temporarily from its overcrowded and disease-ridden jails to help stem the spread of coronavirus.

Iran has the third highest case load after China and Italy, according to World Health Organisation data.

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.

Esmaili did not elaborate on when those released would have to return to jail.

Rick Brennan, emergency director for the region, who just returned from a mission to Iran last week, told Reuters on Monday that the number of cases reported could represent only about a fifth of the real numbers.

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The reason was that testing, as is the case even in some wealthy European countries, was restricted to severe cases.

"We've said the weakest link in their chain is the data," he said. "They are rapidly increasing their ability to test and so the numbers will go up," he said.

Iran's response to the pandemic has drawn strong criticism, both from government critics, and a UN official last week.

However, Brennan was generally upbeat about Tehran's response.

"There's a great commitment and they are taking it seriously from the highest level of government."

Iranian authorities say they have been especially hard hit by global supply shortages for tests and protective equipment, blaming the impact of US sanctions.