(CNSNews.com) – Iran has released tens of thousands of prisoners in a bid to prevent the spread through the prison population of the novel coronavirus, but American citizens remain incarcerated, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday.
Iran is the third worst-affected country, after China and Italy – and that’s if the official number of confirmed COVID-19 cases reported is accurate.
As of Tuesday, the regime had reported a total of 7,161 cases to the World Health Organization (WHO), and a total of 237 deaths. A Johns Hopkins University real time COVID-19 database puts the numbers at 8,042 cases and 291 deaths. Some observers believe the actual numbers may be significantly higher.
Iran’s judiciary chief, Ebrahim Raisi, announced this week that 70,000 prisoners had been granted furlough, and that those with underlying health conditions were being prioritized.
Raisi was not quoted as giving any details about which prisoners were eligible
Pompeo said in a statement the prisoner releases demonstrated the regime’s “ability to grant clemency and show mercy.”
“Yet it continues to unjustly detain several American citizens, without cause or justification.”
Pompeo said the U.S. would hold Tehran directly responsible should any incarcerated Americans die, adding, “Our response will be decisive.”
He also urged other governments that are considering providing humanitarian assistance to Iran to deal with the outbreak to press for a reciprocal humanitarian gesture from the regime – the release of “all wrongly detained dual and foreign national citizens.”
“This request is well within the regime’s power to grant.”
American nationals being held in Iran include Siamak Namazi and his father, Baquer Namazi, arrested in 2015 and 2016, respectively; former U.S. Navy veteran Michael White, arrested in July 2018; and environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, arrested in January 2018. All four have reportedly been sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for various offenses.
Robert Levinson, the former FBI agent who went missing in on Iran’s Kish island 13 years ago this week, remains unaccounted for.
Other Westerners and dual nationals in Iranian custody include at least three British nationals, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Anoush Ashoori and Kamal Foroughi; Canadian Abdolrasoul Dorri Esfahan; Swedish citizen Ahmadreza Djalali; Austrian national Kamran Ghaderi; British-Australian Kylie Moore-Gilbert; and French citizens Roland Marchal and Fariba Adelkhah.
Apart from prison leave, the regime has taken other unprecedented measures to try prevent the outbreak’s spread. Friday prayers in Tehran have been called off for the past few weeks, and on Monday supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei canceled next week’s Nowruz (Persian new year) address to the nation, customarily delivered each year from a shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad.
Schools and universities have been closed, and public gatherings and sports events banned.
This week Iranian journalist Mostafa Faghihi posted a tweet challenging Health Minister Saeed Namaki’s statistics, saying the real number of deaths was approaching 2,000. The tweet was later deleted, but not before being captured and translated by the East Media Research Institute.
“Mr. Namaki, you aren’t releasing the actual numbers of the dead of coronavirus?” MEMRI translated Faghihi as having tweeted. “Fine! I will play my part instead of you! Dear Iranian citizens! The number of dead in the country that are feared to have died of the coronavirus is nearly 2,000 (10 times more than the official figures). Over 130 people died just yesterday in Tehran and in Gilan [province in northern Iran]! Mr. Namaki, don’t pour more salt on the public’s wounds!”
Faghihi is not an opposition voice. He owns the news site Entekhab (“Choice”), which has traditionally been supportive of President Hassan Rouhani.
From the opposition camp, meanwhile, the exiled National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) claims that the death toll now exceeds 3,000, with more than 500 in Gilan province alone.