The UN called Tuesday on Iran to immediately release human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and other political prisoners who have been excluded from a push to empty jails amid the pandemic.
UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet expressed deep concern over the deteriorating situation of rights activists, lawyers and political prisoners held in Iran as a result of the coronavirus crisis.
A system of temporary releases to reduce the populations in severely overcrowded prisons, introduced by Iran in February to rein in transmission of the virus, had benefitted some 120,000 inmates, although a number had since been required to return, her office said.
But people sentenced to more than five years behind bars for "national security" offences were excluded, it pointed out.
Such sentences are often handed to people "arbitrarily detained, including human rights defenders, lawyers, dual and foreign nationals, conservationists, and others deprived of their liberty for expressing their views or exercising other rights," it said.
Bachelet voiced outrage in a statement that such prisoners were thus exposed to more risk of contracting Covid-19 in Iran, the country most affected by the pandemic in the region.
"People detained solely for their political views or other forms of activism in support of human rights should not be imprisoned at all, and such prisoners, should certainly not be treated more harshly or placed at greater risk," she said.
"I am disturbed to see how measures designed to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 have been used in a discriminatory way against this specific group of prisoners," she added.
Weakened by a lengthy hunger strike, 57-year-old Sotoudeh has received a combined sentence of over 30 years in prison on charges related to her human rights work, including 12 years for defending women arrested for protesting compulsory headscarf laws.
Sotoudeh is being held at Tehran's Evin prison, where other political prisoners are detained, including Iranian-French academic Fariba Adelkhah.
To protest prison conditions, she has launched two hunger strikes, including one that lasted nearly 50 days before ending last month over her rapidly deteriorating health.
"I am very concerned that Nasrin Sotoudeh's life is at risk," Bachelet said.
"Once again, I urge the authorities to immediately release her and grant her the possibility of recuperating at home before undergoing the medical treatment of her choice," she said.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern over the "persistent and systematic targeting of individuals who express any dissenting views" in Iran.
"It is disheartening to see the use of the criminal justice system as a tool to silence civil society," Bachelet said.
"Expressing dissent is not a crime."