“So far, some 85,000 prisoners have been released … Also in the jails we have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak,” judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said.
“Yes, about 50% of them were security-related prisoners,” he said when asked at a briefing aired by state TV whether political prisoners were among those freed. He did not elaborate on when those released would have to return to jail.
Iran announced the release of 70,000 prisoners on March 9 in response to the virus, but none were political detainees.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, said then that he had asked Tehran to free all political prisoners temporarily from its overcrowded and disease-ridden jails to help contain the spread of coronavirus.
Rehman said only those serving sentences of less than five years had been freed, while prisoners charged with heavier sentences and those linked to their participation in anti-government protests remained in jail.
Rights activists say the Islamic Republic has freed at least a dozen political prisoners in the past few days but that the most prominent political prisoners remain incarcerated.
Before the March 9 release, Iran said it had 189,500 people in prison, according to the report Rehman submitted to the Human Rights Council in January. They are believed to include hundreds arrested during or after anti-government protests in November.
The United States has called for Iran to free dozens of dual nationals and foreigners held mainly on spying charges, saying that Washington would hold the Tehran government directly responsible for any American deaths.
Iran’s clerical rulers have rejected locking down cities despite the rising death toll from the virus and the rate of new cases, but have urged people not to travel before Iranian new year on March 20 amid fear over a further spread of the disease.
Many Iranians have ignored calls by the health authorities to stay at home, and shops and restaurants remain open.
“Stay at home…Shopping for the new year is like committing suicide these days,” a health ministry official told state television. State TV also warned that millions of Iranians could die of the virus if people traveled for the new year holidays.
Mass Friday prayers have been canceled across the country, it added.
In a rare move, the establishment has closed the holy Shi’ite Muslim sites and shrines in Mashhad and Qom, which is the epicenter of Iran’s coronavirus outbreak.
Police dispersed a group of hardline religious demonstrators who gathered on late Monday at Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad and Masumeh Shrine in Qom to protest against their closure, state media reported. Two protesters had been arrested.
Officials have blamed U.S. sanctions, reimposed on Tehran since Washington quit Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement with six powers, for hampering Tehran’s fight against the coronavirus.
Tehran has called on other countries to back its call for a lifting of U.S. sanctions due to the coronavirus pandemic. Sources familiar with the matter told Reuters on Monday that Washington was unlikely to ease sanctions on Iran despite an appeal from China that it do so.
Last week, Iran said it had asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $5 billion in emergency funding to combat the outbreak.
To mitigate economic pressure on Iranians, the government has ordered delays in business tax and loan paybacks until May.
In addition, around three million lower-income families with no permanent jobs will receive cash handouts up to six million rials (around $400) in four stages.
The United Arab Emirates, a regional rival of Iran, has put aside differences to lend support by sending two planes carrying 32 tonnes of medical supplies, including gloves and surgical masks.