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  • A man wearing a face mask walks on a street amid the novel coronavirus outbreak in Tehran, Iran, on March 2, 2020.

    A man wearing a face mask walks on a street amid the novel coronavirus outbreak in Tehran, Iran, on March 2, 2020. | Photo: Xinhua

Published 17 March 2020

Iran has reported 16,169 coronavirus cases and 988 deaths from the virus in one of the worst national outbreaks outside China.

Iran has temporarily freed about 85,000 people from jail in response to the coronavirus epidemic, a judiciary spokesman said Tuesday.

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“So far, some 85,000 prisoners have been released ... Also in the prisons we have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak,” judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said.

Asked whether prisoners over so-called "political reasons" were among those freed, he told a briefing aired by state television that “yes, about 50 percent of the security-related prisoners have been released.” He did not say when those freed must return to jail.

Iran announced the release of 70,000 prisoners on March 9 in response to the virus - none were "security-related" detainees then.

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 the country’s overcrowded and disease-ridden jails to help contain the spread of the virus.

Rehman said only those serving sentences of less than five years had been freed, while prisoners charged with heavier sentences and those linked to participation in anti-government protests remained in jail.

Before the March 9 release, Iran said it had 189,500 people in prison, according to a 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.

Iran authorities have accused U.S. sanctions, reimposed on Tehran since Washington quit Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement with six powers, of hampering Tehran’s fight against the coronavirus.

Tehran has urged other countries to back its call for a lifting of U.S. sanctions because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Unlawful US sanctions drained Iran’s economic resources, impairing the ability to fight #COVID19,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Tuesday.

Last week, Iran said it had asked the International Monetary Fund for US$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 repayments until May.

About 3 million lower-income families with no permanent jobs will also receive cash handouts up to six million rials (around US$400) in four stages.

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