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Concern over jailed academics as Covid-19 death toll rises


Calls to free detained researchers renewed over worries about their health

Human rights groups have repeated their calls for the release of academics jailed in Iran and Egypt, as concerns grow for the health of prisoners around the world in light of the worsening Covid-19 pandemic.

Advocacy group Scholars at Risk wrote to Iranian officials on 23 March and launched a letter-writing campaign to again try to secure the release of Ahmadreza Djalali, a chronically ill Swedish-Iranian researcher who was arrested on charges of spying in Tehran in 2016. Djalali, who had accepted an invitation from the public University of Tehran to give a talk on his specialism of disaster medicine, was sentenced to death in 2017.

“I understand that Dr Djalali suffers from severely deteriorating health and is at great risk of experiencing adverse effects of the coronavirus disease known as Covid-19,” Scholars at Risk executive director Robert Quinn said in his letter to authorities including Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani. “Furthermore, in combating this pandemic, Iran and the rest of the world would greatly benefit from the expertise of disaster medicine scholars like Dr Djalali.”

Quinn said bone marrow tests had indicated that it is highly likely that Djalali has leukaemia, and that “he has been denied medical care several times despite increasing health complications”. He called for Djalali to be released immediately and given medical attention.

Iran has reportedly released 85,000 prisoners for two weeks due to concerns that Covid-19 could sweep through its crowded prisons. Scholars at Risk said that Djalali remains in detention.

The Italian branch of Amnesty International has renewed its calls for the release of Patrick Zaky, a 27-year-old Egyptian who was undertaking a gender studies master’s degree at the University of Bologna in Italy before he was arrested in Cairo in February and later charged with inciting protest and instigating terrorism.

Zaky, who faces up to 25 years in prison, had a hearing scheduled for 21 March brought forward to 16 March due to the Covid-19 outbreak in Egypt, but it has now been postponed over movement restrictions, according to Amnesty International. He reportedly has asthma, and there are concerns that he could therefore be particularly susceptible to Covid-19.

According to the World Health Organization’s 24 March situation report, more than 370,000 people globally have been confirmed to have contracted Covid-19 and more than 16,000 people have died from it. In Iran there have been more than 23,000 confirmed cases and more than 1,800 deaths, according to the WHO, although the actual figures could be much higher. In Egypt there have been 366 confirmed cases and 19 deaths.