Iran Releases 54,000 Prisoners to Slow Coronavirus in Jails

Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images, File

Iran on Tuesday ordered the temporary release of more than 54,000 prisoners, representing about 20 percent of its imprisoned population, to slow the spread of the coronavirus in its notoriously overcrowded and unsanitary jails.

The released detainees include some of the regime’s political prisoners, possibly including British-Iranian dual citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who apparently did contract the virus during her stint at Iran’s horrifying Evin prison.

According to the Iranian judiciary, only inmates who tested negative for the coronavirus and have been sentenced to fewer than five years in prison would be released. Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a charity worker employed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, was arrested in April 2016 and “charged” in the usual secretive Iranian fashion with leading a “foreign-linked hostile network” that was attempting to overthrow the government. She was sentenced to five years in prison on vague “national security” charges in September 2016.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s family said this week that she is displaying symptoms of the coronavirus, while the Iranian government insists she tested negative.

On Tuesday, the Iranian ambassador to the United Kingdom, Hamid Baeidinejad, quoted an Iranian judiciary spokesman stating the imprisoned woman “is in good health condition and has not been affected with coronavirus” and implied she could be “granted a furlough today or tomorrow to join family.”

However, Baeidinejad later qualified his comments on Twitter and said he had merely offered an “interpretation” of the judiciary’s statements, not promising Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release, while Iranian media reported another woman who had been kept in the same prison cell and was complaining of illness would be furloughed instead.

Nazanin’s husband Richard Ratcliffe said she told him by telephone that she is displaying symptoms of the coronavirus but has not been tested. 

“I am not good. I feel very bad in fact. … At the beginning, I had a runny nose and a cough. Now I have this continual cold sweat. I have a temperature, though not all the time. The past couple of days I have been shivering every night,” she said in a statement relayed through her family.

“There was no word on whether Robert Levinson and Siamak Namazi, both American prisoners believed to be detained in Iran on accusations of spying, would be included. Namazi’s lawyer Jared Genser has alleged that the detainee is at “serious risk” of contracting the virus after a case was confirmed in his prison ward,” Fox News noted on Tuesday.

Iran, the scene of the deadliest coronavirus outbreak since its appearance in the Hubei province of China, has not been forthcoming with hard data about the spread of the disease through its prisons. Iran’s prisons, always overcrowded and unsanitary, are currently bulging with people who were arrested for protesting against the regime late last year. The Evin prison, described by survivors as a hellish dungeon where physical and psychological torture are routine, has exceptionally poor sanitary conditions.

Robert Levinson, a former FBI agent, has been held hostage by Iran for 13 years. His status and whereabouts are unknown.

Siamak Namzi’s brother told the Washington Post on Tuesday that his family is “beyond desperate” because “there is absolutely no way of dealing with what is unraveling in Evin prison.”

“There’s a lack of testing kits available in the prison, a lack of disinfectants, and everyone is packed in together,” he said.

“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,” Namazi family lawyer Jared Genser charged on Monday.

The family of another detainee, 13-year U.S. Navy veteran Michael White of California, worried that his severe pre-existing conditions – including cancer – put him at high risk from the coronavirus.

White was sentenced to ten years in prison in March 2019 on typically vague charges, including “insulting” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Prison doctors removed a melanoma from his back in August 2019. According to his family, he was held at Evin prison for a short time in January but has since been transferred to another facility.

“Given that the prison staff have repeatedly failed to provide adequate health care to Michael, it’s unfathomable to think they’re going to take serious measures to prevent Michael or anyone else from contracting coronavirus,” a family spokesman told the Washington Post.

“If something’s not done, he’s going to die over there. It breaks my heart when I think about my son being mentally tortured,” Michael’s mother Joanne White told the Associated Press on Wednesday

The White family appealed to the Trump administration for help, noting that since the Iranians canceled a planned visit from Swiss officials this week, they are not even certain Michael is still alive. Joanne White said it is “long past time for the administration my son so proudly voted for to do something to bring him home.”

The British Foreign Office on Tuesday asked the Iranian government to “immediately allow health professionals into Evin prison to assess the situation of British-Iranian dual nationals there.”


Please let us know if you're having issues with commenting.