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Iran urges US to release Iranian scientist amid coronavirus pandemic

Sirous Asgari was cleared of charges last year but has remained in custody of US immigration authorities
Iran is one of the hardest-hit countries in the world by the virus with more than 2,200 deaths and 29,400 confirmed cases (AFP/File photo)

Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif is calling on the United States to release an Iranian scientist in its custody due to fears of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Zarif slammed Washington for the continued imprisonment of an Iranian professor at a US immigration detention facility despite the scientist being cleared of charges of violating sanctions against Iran last year.

"US has taken several Iranian scientists hostage - without charge or on spurious sanctions charges - & not releasing them; even when its OWN courts reject the absurd charges," he wrote on Twitter on Friday.

The Iranian chief diplomat was commenting on the case of Dr Sirous Asgari, who was accused of stealing trade secrets and breaking Washington's sanctions against Tehran while working on a research project at Case Western Reserve University in Ohio.

In November of last year, a US federal judge dismissed the charges against Asgari because the government did not have sufficient evidence against him.

The scientist had entered the US on a valid visa but did not have authorisation to live permanently in the United States. The US revoked his visa, and he remained in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) - the US agency that enforces immigration policies.

He had agreed to voluntary deportation, but his detention was prolonged with the spread of Covid-19, which disrupted international travel.

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According to investigative website ProPublica, Asgari was flown on nine different flights between ICE facilities over the past two weeks despite the US government's warnings against travel.

On Thursday, The Guardian published an interview with Asgari where he described dire conditions at the ICE detention centre where he is staying, which make a ripe environment for the virus to spread.

He said the facility in Louisiana where new detainees are brought in daily lacks hand sanitisers; its bathrooms are not regularly cleaned; and social distancing guidelines recommended by the US federal and state governments are not enforced.

Asgari told the British newspaper that immigration officials even barred him from wearing his own protective mask until Monday, deploring the way ICE treats immigrants.

"The way ICE looks at these people is not like they are human beings, but are objects to get rid of," he said. "The way that they have been treating us is absolutely terrifying. I don’t think many people in the US know what is happening inside this black box."

Zarif brought up Asgari's case as the United States faces growing calls for lifting sanctions against Iran to allow the Islamic Republic to counter Covid-19.

Iran is one of the hardest-hit countries in the world by the virus with more than 2,200 deaths and 29,400 confirmed cases.