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Coronavirus: Iran says 54 inmates at large after mass jail break

The men reportedly escaped from the prison in Saqqez as guards were making preparations for a New Year amnesty
The escapees had been serving a maximum of one-year sentences, IRNA said, denying that dangerous criminals were at large (AFP)

Iranian security forces are searching for 54 escaped inmates following a prison break over which four guards were arrested, Iran's state news agency has reported.

"Some prison guards were summoned and four of them were arrested and others released on bail," Mojtaba Shirouzbozorgi, a judicial official in Kurdistan province, told IRNA on Sunday.

According to the agency, 74 inmates escaped from Saqqez city's prison on Friday, 20 of whom have so far either turned themselves in or been captured.

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On 19 March, 23 prisoners escaped from another jail in the western city of Khorramabad, the capital of Lorestan province, hours before the start of Iran's New Year celebrations known as Nowruz, IRNA said.

The inmates reportedly escaped during the night while guards were making preparations for a Nowruz amnesty.

The escapees had been serving a maximum of one-year sentences, the agency said, denying that dangerous prisoners were at large.

There were also prison riots in Hamedan and Tabriz provinces, and Aligoudarz city in Lorestan as authorities prevented escapes.

Hamedan's prosecutor told IRNA that the unrest there was "over the excuse of the coronavirus outbreak".

One inmate died and another was injured during the riot in Aligoudarz prison.

Furloughs extended

Around 10,000 prisoners are expected to be released as part of the Nowruz amnesty, according to Iran's judiciary.

The move aims to "reduce the number of prisoners in light of the sensitive situation in the country," a judicial spokesman said on Sunday, making no explicit reference to the coronavirus pandemic.

Iran's judiciary has already temporarily released 100,000 detainees in an attempt to contain the spread of the disease and its spokesman said that those furloughs had been extended to 19 April. 

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

Rouhani statement

Iran on Monday reported 117 new deaths from the coronavirus, bringing the official total number of fatalities to 2,757.

Health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour announced the update toll in a news conference on Monday and said 3,186 more cases had been confirmed in the past day, raising total confirmed infections to 41,495, AFP said.

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As cases continued to rise, President Hassan Rouhani on Sunday urged Iranians to adapt to their new way of life, which was likely to continue for some time, Reuters reported.

"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 cases because many Iranians defied calls to cancel travel plans for the Persian New Year holidays that began on 20 March.

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

US 'waging an economic war'

Officials say that US 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 US since 2018, when US President Donald Trump pulled out of Tehran's 2015 nuclear deal with six world powers and reimposed sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy.

"US has gone from sabotage and assassinations to waging an economic war and economic terrorism on Iranians - to medical terror amidst Covid-19. This even exceeds what would be permissible on the battlefield," Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted on Sunday.

"STOP aiding WAR CRIMES. STOP obeying IMMORAL and ILLEGAL US sanctions," he added on the social media platform.

The US imposed fresh sanctions on Iran on Thursday and Tehran has rejected an offer from Washington to help Iran to cope with the pandemic.