Iran Temporarily Frees 54,000 Prisoners As Covid-19 Devastates Overcrowded Jails

In under two weeks Iran's leaders have gone from denial, to a seeming attempt at cover-up, to in some cases getting sick themselves to now talking a major military and volunteer mobilized response. This as the official death toll as of Wednesday has risen to 92, including 2,922 confirmed cases as overnight 586 new cases were reported.

And in the latest sign that desperation and panic have kicked in as coronovirus victims' bodies pile up at local morgues, Tehran is actually freeing prisoners on a mass scale in what appears a sign that Covid-19 is rapidly spreading among the country's crowded prison population.

"Iran has temporarily released more than 54,000 prisoners in an effort to combat the spread of the new coronavirus disease in crowded jails," the BBC reports.

Evin prison in Tehran, via The Mirror.

The stipulation, according to a statement from Iran's judiciary, is that inmates post bail but more importantly that they test negative for Covid-19.

Importantly, this could potentially lead to the freedom of some political prisoners and foreigners from the West who've long been languishing in Iranian jails, including the infamous Evin political prison in Tehran.

The deadly virus is reportedly spreading among the close-quartered inmate population, threatening at least one American detainee, as NBC reports:

The lawyer for an American held in Iran said on Monday that his client is at “serious risk” of contracting the coronavirus after another inmate held near his cell tested positive for the illness.

A detainee held in the same prison ward as Iranian-American Siamak Namazi was diagnosed with coronavirus and has been removed, Jared Genser, a U.S. lawyer working on behalf of Namazi, said in a statement.

Namazi has been held since 2015 after being charged with “collaboration with a hostile government,” the United States. His lawyer said further: “To keep Siamak at Evin prison in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak and without access to testing or even basic medicines constitutes cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment in violation of Iran’s obligations under the Convention Against Torture,” according to the report.

There's also growing concern in the UK over British detainees at the prison, with a Foreign Office spokesman saying Tuesday: "We call on the Iranian government to immediately allow health professionals into Evin prison to assess the situation of British-Iranian dual nationals there."

Evin prison, file image.

Concern is focused on British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, also jailed five years ago after allegations of espionage, which she had denied. According to the BBC:

Tulip Siddiq cited the Iranian ambassador to the UK as saying that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe "may be released on furlough today or tomorrow".

Her husband said on Saturday that he believed she had contracted Covid-19 at Tehran's Evin prison and that authorities were refusing to test her.

But Mr Esmaili insisted on Monday that Ms Zaghari-Ratcliffe had subsequently been in contact with her family and "told them about her good health".

Iranian officials began sounding the alarm last month over the vulnerable prison population as a key demographic through which the virus could spread rapidly. 

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who has been held at Evin for five years, via The Guardian.

"Addressing prison wardens across the country Ali-Asghar Jahangir said prisoners should not be sent to courts unnecessarily and without due coordination," US media wing Radio Farda earlier reported. "He also said all visits to prisons except for judicial and health officials should stop, prisoners should not be transferred between prisons and family visits to take place behind glass barriers."

Sanctions-wracked Iran has the worst coronavirus outbreak outside the disease's believed origin point in China, at a moment the majority of Covid-19 deaths have been reported to be outside China for the first time.

Media reports have lately suggest the true number of infected inside Iran is actually closer to 20,000 with no signs of stopping in the near term.