DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) -- Syrian President Bashar Assad granted amnesty and reduced sentences for all crimes committed before Sunday, while also offering amnesty to military deserters who turn themselves in within the next few months.
Similar amnesties have been issued on several occasions, most recently in September of last year.
The decree did not say whether freeing prisoners was part of an attempt to halt the spread of the new coronavirus inside Syria's jails. Syria is the only country in the Middle East that has reported zero coronavirus cases so far, although strict measures have been taken across the war-torn country to prevent the spread of the virus, including the closure of restaurants and cafes.
Iran, one of the hardest-hit countries in the world by the new virus, released 85,000 prisoners last week on temporary leave. The move was apparently an effort to keep the virus from spreading through Iran's prisons. Iran has been a strong ally of Assad during Syria's nine-year civil war.
The conflict in Syria has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced half the country's population. Opposition activists say tens of thousands of anti-government activists are held in jails around the country.
Sunday's decree granted amnesty to several crimes that weren't included in previous amnesties.However, the decree did not name which specific crimes were covered, instead referring to them by their number in Syrian criminal law. A government adviser, Abdul-Qader Azouz, later said the amnesty covered crimes committed since the war began in 2011, such as anti-government activity online and some acts of terrorism.
Death penalties would be replaced by life sentences with hard labor, while those serving life sentences would serve 20 years with hard labor, according to the decree. Juvenile prisoners would see their sentences cut in half. Prisoners suffering from incurable diseases and those over 70 years of age as of Sunday were to be freed.
Army deserters inside the country would receive amnesty if they surrender within three months, while those outside the country have six months to surrender, the decree said.
The amnesty did not include prisoners convicted of weapons smuggling or drug dealing.