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Iran urges U.S. to free Iranian prisoners amid coronavirus

DUBAI (Reuters) - The Tehran government urged the United States on Friday to release Iranians held in U.S. jails on sanctions-related issues due to fears about the coronavirus epidemic.

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif speaks with the media on the sidelines of a security conference in New Delhi, India, January 15, 2020. REUTERS/Alasdair Pal/File Photo

The death toll in Iran, one of the countries worst hit by the disease, meanwhile rose to 2,378 on Friday, a jump of 144, while its number of cases rose to 32,332, according to Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour.

Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif accused the United States of holding a number of Iranians in its prisons and said that under the circumstances they should be set free.

“US even refuses medical furlough — amid #covid19 — for innocent men jailed in horrific facilities. Release our men,” he said on Twitter.

The United States became the country with the most infections globally when its cases topped 85,000 on Thursday.

Zarif also referred to a report by the Guardian newspaper about Dr Sirous Asgari, a materials science professor, who it said was still being held in a crowded facility after being acquitted in November on U.S. federal charges of stealing trade secrets.

“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,” Zarif said.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this month that U.S. citizen Michael White, who has been detained in Iran since 2018, had been released on medical furlough, adding that the U.S. navy veteran was under the custody of the Swiss government.

Days before speaking about White, Pompeo said Tehran was considering freeing some U.S. citizens and urged it to do so as a humanitarian gesture because of coronavirus.

On Thursday, the United States blacklisted five Iran- and Iraq-based companies and 15 individuals accused of supporting terrorist groups, its third round of sanctions on Iranian targets in the last two weeks.

Humanitarian supplies are exempt from sanctions Washington reimposed on Tehran after U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 international agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear programme. However, broader U.S. sanctions deter many firms from humanitarian trade with Iran.

Reporting by Dubai Newsroom; Editing by Alison Williams, Angus MacSwan and Frances Kerry

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