A United Nations human rights official on Friday voiced concern over prisoners after reports of unrest in facilities prompted by worries over a coronavirus outbreak in countries including Iran, one of the worst-hit in the world.
Iranian media have reported unrest in several prisons, and a mass escape from a facility in the west of the country, despite the temporary release of some 100,000 inmates to curb prison overcrowding.
Radio Farda reported on unrest in two prisons in Iran’s oil-rich Khuzestan province on March 30 and 31, where according to activists up to 20 inmates were killed, some by direct gunfire by security forces.
"As you see in Iran and some other countries, we are seeing riots, prisoners who are afraid, who are distressed at the big loss of contact from family members and so on. So, there are many, many issues surrounding this," U.N. human rights spokesman Rupert Colville told a virtual briefing in Geneva.
Iran is one of the countries worst-hit by the global coronavirus outbreak. Its official death toll rose on Friday to 3,294 as 134 died in the past 24 hours, with the total number of cases reaching 53,183, according to a Health Ministry spokesman.
However, an independent estimate by Radio Farda puts the numbers much higher, as Iran does not test every dead person with coronavirus symptoms and only counts those who multiple times tested positive.
"Iran... has increased the number it is releasing, at least on a temporary basis, to around 100,000 prisoners – some 40 percent of the entire prison population," Colville said.
"We are horrified at the death of a juvenile offender after he was reportedly badly beaten by security officers," Colville added. "Prisoners were protesting at prison conditions and the failure of the authorities to temporarily release them amid the COVID-19 pandemic."
The young man, Daniel Zeinolabedini was put in solitary confinement and beaten by security officers in Mahabad prison in Urmia in West Azerbaijan Province after a riot erupted on 28 March. “Prisoners were protesting at prison conditions and the failure of the authorities to temporarily release them amid the COVID-19 pandemic”, Colville said.
Zeinlabedini was arrested two years ago for murder and put on death row, although he was 17 and a juvenile when he committed murder.
Iran routinely deals with underaged offenders according to Islamic law, which allows for the death penalty for people under 18 years of age. However, the sentence is carried out after they turn 18, according to the country’s civil code.
There was no immediate report of the alleged incident in Iranian media and Reuters says officials could not be reached on Friday, the weekend in the country.