Saudi Arabia releases 250 immigration offenders amid coronavirus outbreak: statement

FILE PHOTO: General view shows the empty garden of the King Fahd Library, following the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia March 19, 2020. Picture taken March 19, 2020. REUTERS/Ahmed Yosri/File Photo

RIYADH (Reuters) - Saudi Arabia has released 250 foreign detainees held on non-violent immigration and residency offences as part of efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus, the state-backed Human Rights Commission (HRC) said on Thursday.

“Releasing them for eventual repatriation will help decrease the threat for inmates of the detention centres without compromising public security in any way,” HRC President Awwad al-Awwad said in a statement to Reuters.

He said more releases were expected in Saudi Arabia, where three people have died from coronavirus among more than 1,000 infections despite drastic measures that include halting all international flights, closing down most public places and suspending work.

Countries around the world have begun releasing inmates in order to avoid potentially disastrous spreading of the virus among crowded inmate populations.

Iran, an epicentre of the outbreak in the Middle East with 2,234 deaths among nearly 30,000 infections, last week temporarily released 85,000 people from jail, including political prisoners.

A week earlier, the island kingdom of Bahrain which has reported 457 cases and four deaths from coronavirus, released and pardoned hundreds of prisoners, which rights groups had linked to counter-virus measures.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called on the United Arab Emirates to conditionally release at-risk prisoners, including those living with HIV, as coronavirus spread in that country. The UAE government did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

HRW researcher Aya Majzoub told Reuters that given the acute risk of infection in places of detention, “prisons, jails, and immigration detention centres should consider reducing their populations through supervised release or other measures for individuals at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus, such as older people and people with underlying health conditions.”

Reporting by Stephen Kalin in Riyadh and Lisa Barrington and Aziz El Yaakoubi in Dubai; editing by Jason Neely and Alexandra Hudson