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COVID-19: Baku Extends Restrictions; Afghan Presidential Staff Test Positive

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An Azerbaijanii police officer checks the documentation of two women in Baku amid a coronavirus lockdown in the city.

The global death toll from the coronavirus is more than 158,000 with over 2.3 million infections confirmed, causing mass disruptions as governments continue to try to slow the spread of the new respiratory illness.

Here's a roundup of COVID-19 developments in RFE/RL's broadcast regions.

Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan has announced it is extending coronavirus restrictions by two weeks until May 4.

Baku also announced on April 18 that borders with Georgia and Iran will remain closed until May 4.

Azerbaijan, an energy-rich nation in the South Caucasus, has recorded a total of 1,373 coronavirus cases, with 18 deaths. Authorities said 590 patients had recovered.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused Baku of "abusing" coronavirus restrictions to arrest government critics.

The rights watchdog said on April 16 that in less than a month at least six opposition activists and a pro-opposition journalist were sentenced to detention of up to 30 days on "spurious charges" that included breaking lockdown rules or disobeying police orders.

Most of them had criticized conditions in government-run quarantine centers or authorities’ failure to provide adequate compensation to people struggling financially from the consequences of the pandemic, it added.

The arrests "fall squarely within a longstanding pattern of political retaliation in Azerbaijan," said Giorgi Gogia, associate director for Europe and Central Asia at HRW.

He urged authorities to "stop using a public health emergency as a pretext to punish legitimate speech."

The government has put in place a series of social-distancing measures to combat the outbreak, including a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people.

Last month, parliament passed legal amendments providing for fines of up to 200 manat ($120) or detention of up to 30 days for violating the lockdown regime.

In March, 154 people were jailed and thousands were fined for violating the restrictions, according to the Interior Ministry.

Critics of Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev say authorities frequently seek to silence dissent by jailing opposition activists, reporters, human rights defenders, and civil society advocates without grounds.

Afghanistan

Government sources in Afghanistan say at least 20 officials working at Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's palace have tested positive for the coronavirus, prompting the 70-year-old leader to limit most of his contact with staff to digital communication.

An official document delivered to the Presidential Palace in Kabul is thought to have infected staff, many of whom began feeling unwell and were tested earlier in April, a senior Afghan health official told Reuters on April 18.

"A contaminated document was sent to an office inside the palace from another government department and that's how the employees were infected," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Some of the employees were still working in their offices when the results came out," the Afghan official said. "We had to quarantine them and their families, but the numbers could be higher."

Sediq Sediqqi, Ghani's spokesman, said the Civil Service Commission had already asked government employees to stay at home before the tests were conducted. Sediqqi said on April 18 that the order had been extended for another three weeks.

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The Afghan president is said to be conducting most business through video conference calls and is meeting in person with only a handful in his inner circle.

Afghanistan, already experiencing shortages of food and medicine while violent clashes with the Taliban continue, had recorded 933 cases of coronavirus as of April 18.

Thirty people have died of the virus in Afghanistan, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University in the United States. Afghan health officials say the number of cases is likely to be much higher than reported due to limited testing.

The Health Ministry has warned that, unless containment measures are improved throughout the country, Afghanistan is heading for a catastrophe in which millions could be infected.

Iran

Iran is allowing some businesses in Tehran and nearby towns to reopen on April 18 after weeks of lockdown aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Iran initially was slow to respond to the pandemic and held off on imposing widespread restrictions even after other countries in the region with far fewer cases forced most businesses to close.

Authorities in Iran have reported more than 80,000 confirmed infections with more than 5,000 deaths. But many Iranians and international experts think the government has intentionally underreported the extent of the pandemic in the country.

According to a report by Iran's parliament, the country's published figures are based only on those hospitalized with "severe symptoms."

That report said the real death toll is estimated to be as much as 80 percent higher and infections "eight to 10 times" higher.

Iran's Health Ministry has confirmed the real infection rate and death toll may be higher due to limited testing in the country.

RFE/RL's Coronavirus Crisis Archive

Features and analysis, videos, and infographics explore how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the countries in our broadcast area.

Gyms, restaurants, shopping malls, and Tehran's grand bazaar remain closed on April 18.

Shrines and mosques, as well as schools and universities, are also closed and public gatherings are banned.

But government offices have reopened with a third of employees working from home.

Traffic was heavy in Tehran early on April 18, the first day of Iran's work week. Authorities allowed businesses outside the capital to reopen a week ago.

Iran's leaders say they must consider the economic consequences of quarantine measures. The country is struggling under tight sanctions imposed by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the United States from Tehran's nuclear deal with world powers.

According to the International Monetary Fund, Iran's economy shrank by 7.6 percent in 2019 and is expected to contract a further 6 percent this year.

Meanwhile, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a fatwa, or religious ruling, that believers may abstain from fasting during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan if it threatens their health.

"The fast is a religious necessity and a pillar of Islamic law and it is not permissible to abstain from fasting...unless one has a rational belief that fasting may cause a sickness, worsen a disease or prolong it," Khamenei said in the ruling published on his official website.

On April 17, human rights experts from the United Nations called on Iran to release political prisoners who risk becoming infected inside the country's crowded detention centers.

A man wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus sits at a bus stop in Tehran.
A man wearing a face mask to protect against the coronavirus sits at a bus stop in Tehran.

Tehran has temporarily released 100,000 prisoners. But Iran continues to detain many dual-nationals convicted on security charges.

The UN experts have highlighted the cases of human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and rights defenders Narges Mohammadi and Arash Sadeghi, as well as Ahmadreza Djalali , an Iranian-Swedish national; Morad Tahbaz, an Iranian-British-American national; and Kamran Ghaderi and Massud Mossaheb, who are both Iranian-Austrian nationals.

They said all seven have requested temporary release but have been rejected or not received a response.

Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili denied that nationality was a factor in determining whether a prisoner would be released.

Russia

Russian health authorities have reported 4,785 new cases of coronavirus, a record for a single day.

Authorities also said 40 people had died over the past 24 hours, bringing the overall death toll to 313. Some 36,700 coronavirus cases have been confirmed in Russia.

Moscow accounted for more than half of the new infections and 21 of the 40 deaths, the Russian coronavirus crisis response center said.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the government to provide daily forecasts of the spread of the coronavirus.

Russia had reported far fewer infections than many Western European countries during the pandemic's early stages. But Russia's official tally began rising sharply in April.

Like in many countries, health authorities in Russia are not carrying out mass testing.

Private testing results in Moscow among people without symptoms suggest the virus has penetrated more deeply into the population than official data shows.

In Moscow, a city of 12.7 million people and hardest hit by the coronavirus outbreak, cases jumped by 2,649 to 20,754.

However, Moscow Mayor Sergei Sobyanin said the lockdown measures first introduced in March were working.

"The disease rate in the city is growing but not exponentially, and far from the worst-case scenario," Sobyanin wrote on his website.

Declared on March 30, the lockdown regime banned residents from leaving their homes unless they were going to buy food or medicines, get urgent medical treatment, or walk the dog.

The authorities also introduced a travel-permit system effective from April 15, and Sobyanin said on April 18 that the authorities would use traffic cameras to catch drivers travelling without passes.

With reporting by AP, Reuters, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan, Current Time, TASS, and Interfax
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