News Digest: Week of March 16

March 16

Health: Iran’s Ministry of Health reported 14,991 cases of coronavirus, including 853 deaths—129 more than the previous day. It was the largest one-day increase in fatalities since the outbreak was first reported on February 19.  Ayatollah Hashem Bathayi Golpayegani, a senior cleric and member of the Assembly of Experts, reportedly died from the virus.

Society: The government closed the Imam Reza Shrine in Mashhad and Masoumeh Shrine in Qom to stem the spread of infections. Demonstrators gathered at the sites to protest their closures. Police arrested two protestors after angry crowds stormed into the courtyards of both shrines.


March 17

Health/Human Rights: Iran recorded 16,169 cases and 988 deaths from coronavirus. The judiciary announced that it had released 80,000 prisoners on temporary leave. “Some 50 percent of those released are security-related prisoners ... Also inside the jails, we have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak,” judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said.

Human Rights: Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian dual national held in Tehran’s Evin Prison, was granted temporary release until April 4. She was reportedly required to wear an ankle monitor and remain within 300 meters of her family home in Tehran. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested at the airport on April 3, 2016, on her way out of the country after visiting her parents. She was sentenced to five years in prison later in 2016 for allegedly plotting against the government.


March 18

Health: Iran’s Ministry of Health reported 17,361 cases of coronavirus, including 1,135 deaths. President Hassan Rouhani said that Iran’s response to the pandemic was better than that of Western countries. “Compare Tehran to London, Berlin, and Paris… See for yourselves what is going on there. Shop racks have been emptied and people got into a fight over a roll of toilet paper,” he said. “The people there are concerned about foodstuffs and their hospitals say they have run out of beds. However, we rushed to supply the public requirements amid the situation.”

Health/Human Rights: Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif slammed U.S. sanctions, which he called "economic terrorism," in his annual Nowruz speech. He accused the U.S. government of inhibiting Iran's ability to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. “When a nation’s right to access to medicine, food and other humanitarian items is violated, it will be placed on an unequal and more vulnerable position in comparison with the other countries,” he said. “The U.S. is trying to ultimately turn our country into an isolated island in an ocean of threats and miseries through the constant increase in the layers and depth of the sanctions.”


March 19

Health/Justice: Iran recorded 18,407 cases and 1,284 from coronavirus. State media reported that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had pardoned 10,000 prisoners to mark Nowruz, the Persian new year. The judiciary said that the clemency would apply to those sentenced to more than 10 years who had served at least half of their sentences. Men above the age of 70 and women above the age of 60 would be pardoned if they had served at least one-fifth of their sentences.

Human Rights/Justice: The U.S. State Department announced that Michael White, a U.S. Navy veteran detained in Iran, was temporarily released from prison on a medical furlough. His release was facilitated by the Swiss, who represent U.S. interests in Iran. White was required to remain in Iran throughout his furlough. In March 2019, White was sentenced to two years in prison for allegedly insulting the supreme leader and 10 years for posting a private photograph on social media.


March 20

Health: Iran’s Ministry of Health recorded 9,644 cases and 1,433 deaths from coronavirus. Officials warned that the disease was killing an Iranian every 10 minutes and urged citizens to stay home during the Nowruz holiday. “Considering this information, make a conscious decision concerning travel, days out and family visits,” the health ministry’s spokesman tweeted.

Society: In his annual address marking the Persian new year, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei acknowledged that Iran had faced a difficult year “that began with the floods and that ended with the coronavirus.” He also listed the physical toll from earthquakes, the economic pressure of sanctions, and the confrontation with the United States that led to the death of Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani.

Iran’s leaders pledged to overcome the COVID-19 outbreak. “We will put the coronavirus behind us soon with unity, with hard work and with cooperation,” President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised address on Nowruz.