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Female human rights activists imprisoned in Iran are facing a slew of new charges to prevent them from being temporarily released because of the Covid-19 epidemic, rights groups say.

Since Covid-19 spread rapidly through the country in early March, Iranian authorities have been under pressure to release all prisoners who pose no risk to society. Around 85,000 prisoners were temporarily released under a furlough scheme earlier this year in response to the coronavirus outbreak, half of whom were believed to be political detainees.

Yet dozens of women’s rights activists remain in prisons across the country, with groups including the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) accusing authorities of deliberately rendering them ineligible for release by bringing new charges. Those considered “security prisoners” with sentences of more than five years were automatically denied furlough.

Narges Mohammadi, one of Iran’s best-known women’s rights defenders, was jailed for 16 years in 2015 after she campaigned to abolish the death penalty. Mohammadi’s family and the GCHR say that she has been denied furlough and charged with “dancing in prison during the days of mourning to commemorate the murder of the Shia Imam Hussein” – a charge the family dismissed as absurd.

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