Iran pardons 157 detained after antigovernment protests

TEHRAN, Iran (AP) — Iran pardoned 157 people held on charges stemming from their alleged participation in antigovernment protests, the country's judiciary announced on Tuesday, the biggest such release of those swept up in the harsh crackdowns.

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili told reporters that the people freed had been imprisoned for “spreading propaganda against the system" and taking part in several waves of protests that challenged the government over the last three years.

The amnesty was part of a customary clemency order by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to mark the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad. Khamenei, who has the final say on all state matters, issued a decree pardoning 3,780 prisoners last week.

As the coronavirus pandemic ravaged Iran, propelling its death toll to highest in the Middle East, the government released over 100,000 prisoners to keep the virus from spreading in the country's crowded cellblocks.

On Tuesday, Nasrin Sotoudeh, a leading human rights lawyer who was temporarily released from prison over health concerns last week, tested positive for the coronavirus, her husband wrote on Twitter. Sotoudeh's case took on new urgency when he learned that “so many” inmates in the ward were infected, he added, suggesting runaway transmission in Iran's prisons.

Economic grievances in Iran have repeatedly triggered nationwide political unrest in recent years. In November 2019, security forces smothered protests that were prompted by a sharp increase in gasoline prices, arresting over 1,000 and killing hundreds, according to rights watchdog Amnesty International.

The cases of those caught in crackdowns have drawn international outrage. In September, Iran executed a 27-year-old wrestler accused of stabbing a water supply company employee after taking part in 2018 protests in the southern city of Shiraz. His execution revived demands for Iran to stop carrying out the death penalty.