Iran extends prison furloughs as coronavirus death toll rises

By Parisa Hafezi
A traffic police officer wears a protective face mask and gloves, amid fear of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), as he walks in Tehran

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iran's coronavirus death toll has risen to 2,640, a health ministry official said on Sunday, as the Middle East's worst-hit country grapples with the fast-spreading outbreak.

"In the past 24 hours we had 123 deaths and 2,901 people have been infected, bringing the total number of infected people to 38,309," Alireza Vahabzadeh, an adviser to the health minister, said in a tweet. "12,391 people infected from the virus have recovered."

Health ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur told state TV that 3,467 of those infected were in "critical condition".

"I am happy to announce that also 12,391 people who had been infected across the country have recovered," Jahanpur said. "The average age of those who have died of the disease is 69."

President Hassan Rouhani urged Iranians to adapt to their new way of life, which was likely to continue for some time.

"We must prepare to live with the virus until a treatment is discovered ... The new measures that have been imposed are for everyone's benefit ... Our main priority is the safety and the health of our people," Rouhani said during a televised meeting.

The government has banned inter-city travel after warning of a potential surge in coronavirus cases because many Iranians defied calls to cancel travel plans for the Persian New Year holidays that began on March 20.

The authorities told Iranians to stay at home, while schools, universities, cultural, religious and sports centres have been temporarily closed.

To stem the spread of the virus in crowded jails, Iran's judiciary on Sunday extended furloughs for 100,000 prisoners. On March 17, Iran said it had freed about 85,000 people from jail temporarily, including political prisoners.

"The second wave of (the) temporary release of prisoners had already started and their (100,000 prisoners) furloughs have been extended until April 19," judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili was reported as saying by state television.

Iran said it had 189,500 people in prison, according to a report submitted by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran to the Human Rights Council in January.

Iranian authorities say that U.S. sanctions are hampering their efforts to curb the outbreak and have urged other countries and the United Nations to call for the measures to be lifted. Washington has rejected a lifting of sanctions.

Tensions have risen between Iran and the United States since 2018, when U.S. President Donald Trump pulled out of Tehran’s 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers and reimposed sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

"U.S. has gone from sabotage & assassinations to waging an economic war & #EconomicTerrorism on Iranians—to #MedicalTerror amidst #covid19iran. This even exceeds what would be permissible on the battlefield," Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Sunday.

"STOP aiding WAR CRIMES. STOP obeying IMMORAL & ILLEGAL U.S. sanctions."

The United States imposed fresh sanctions on Iran on Thursday. Tehran has rejected a U.S. offer to help Iran to cope with the pandemic.


(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Giles Elgood and David Goodman)