KABUL -- The Afghan government ordered the release of as many as 10,000 prisoners -- mostly women, juveniles and the ill -- in a bid to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, officials said Thursday (March 26).
Between 9,000 and 10,000 inmates will be released over the coming 10 days, said penal chief Ahmad Rashed Totakhil.
The move comes after an increase in local COVID-19 cases and as tens of thousands of Afghans return from neighbouring Iran, one of the countries hit hardest by the pandemic.
The Iranian government has been summarily expelling Afghan migrant workers and refugees, while accusing them of spreading the virus.
Vulnerable categories of inmates to be freed
President Ashraf Ghani's decree was directed at women, young offenders, critically ill patients and inmates over the age of 55, said Attorney General Farid Hamidi.
"This is a responsible decision to safeguard public health," Hamidi said at a news conference.
"The decree is not for those who have committed crimes against national and international security," he added.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has urged countries to protect inmates held in overcrowded prisons and other enclosed facilities by releasing vulnerable detainees, saying COVID-19 "risks rampaging through such institutions".
True spread of illness unknown
Afghanistan has officially recorded two deaths and 94 cases of coronavirus, but the true figure is feared to be many times higher as it struggles to administer tests and screen the influx of returnees expelled by the Iranian regime.
The Afghan government has finalised a 21-member team -- including five women -- who will negotiate with the Taliban in upcoming talks aimed at ending Afghanistan's 18-year-old conflict, officials said Friday (March 27).
It is not clear when or where the "intra-Afghan" talks will start. Given the coronavirus pandemic, officials say the talks could begin as a videoconference.
On Wednesday (March 25), the government said it would meet directly with Taliban members to discuss a massive prisoner swap that would see the release of 5,000 Taliban prisoners and 1,000 from the government side.