(Adds protests, new measures, detail on prisoners)
By Parisa Hafezi
DUBAI, March 17 (Reuters) - Iran has temporarily freed about 85,000 prisoners, including political prisoners in response to the coronavirus epidemic, a judiciary spokesman said on Tuesday,
The death toll in Iran from the coronavirus has reached 853 and a total of 14,991 people have been confirmed infected across the country, one of the worst national outbreaks outside China, where the new virus originated.
Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said only those serving sentences of less than five years had been freed, while political prisoners and others charged with heavier sentences linked to their participation in anti-government protests remained in jail.
"Also in the jails we have taken precautionary measures to confront the outbreak," Esmaili said.
He did not elaborate on when those released would have to return to jail.
On March 10, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Iran, Javaid Rehman, said he had asked Tehran to free all political prisoners temporarily from its overcrowded and disease-ridden jails to help stem the spread of coronavirus.
Iran has released at least a dozen political prisoners in the past days, according to activists and rights groups. But prominent political prisoners still remain in jail.
The United States has called for the release of dozens of dual nationals and foreigners held mainly on spying charges in Iran, saying that Washington will hold the government directly responsible for any American deaths.
Iran's clerical rulers have rejected locking down cities despite the rising death toll and the rate of new cases but they have urged people to avoid travelling ahead of Iranian new year on March 20 amid concerns over further spread of the virus.
Many Iranians have ignored calls by the health authorities to stay at home, and shops and restaurants remained open in the country. In a rare move, the establishment has closed the holy Shi'ite Muslim sites and shrines in Mashhad and Qom, the epicentre of Iran's coronavirus outbreak.
Police dispersed a group of hardline demonstrators who gathered on late Monday at Imam Reza Shrine in Mashahd and Masumeh Shrine in Qom to protest against their closure, state media reported. Two protesters had been arrested.
Officials have blamed U.S. sanctions, reimposed on Tehran since Washington quit Iran's 2015 nuclear agreement with six powers, for hampering Tehran's fight against the coronavirus.
Tehran has called on other countries to back its call for lifting of U.S. sanctions. Sources told Reuters on Monday that Washington was unlikely to ease sanctions on Iran despite an appeal from China that it do so because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week, Iran said it had asked the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for $5 billion in emergency funding to combat the outbreak.
The United Arab Emirates, a rival of Iran, has put aside differences to lend support by sending two planes carrying 32 tonnes of medical supplies, including gloves and surgical masks.
Other countries in the Middle East have imposed strict measures such as closing their borders and suspending flights.
Kuwait's health ministry on Tuesday reported seven new cases, all among Kuwaitis who had been to Britain to take the country's toll to 130.
Bahrain on Monday reported the Arab Gulf region's first death from the disease as the number of infections in the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council crossed 1,000.
Oman, which lies across the Gulf from Iran, said anyone entering the sultanate as of Tuesday would be quarantined. It had earlier imposed restrictions on entry to allow only Gulf Arab citizens. (Additional reporting by Dubai newsroom Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Angus MacSwan)
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