DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — Authorities in Bangladesh have been releasing hundreds of children suspected of committing mostly petty crimes as they try to keep the coronavirus from spreading in overcrowded detention centers, officials said Friday.

The orders for their release on bail came from virtual courts set up by the country’s Supreme Court with the help of UNICEF, officials said.

About 400 children have been granted bail in recent weeks and more than 300 of them have already been reunited with their families, said Natalie McCauley, chief of child protection at UNICEF in Bangladesh.

She said the decision came as public health experts said children living in the country’s detention centers face a higher risk of getting infected, mainly because of overcrowding and poor conditions.

Bangladesh has a protracted system of delivering justice, with some cases for petty crimes taking years to conclude. According to UNICEF, some 23,000 cases involving children under 18 are currently pending with courts across the country.

Saifur Rahman, a special officer of the Supreme Court and additional district judge who is involved with the release program, said the program was crucial as with inadequate staff and utilities in detention centers, it was extremely difficult to minimize the risk of infection from COVID-19.


“In all fairness, maintaining social and physical distancing is next to impossible in such a situation,” he said.

Mohammed Rakib, 15, was accused of beating a man in Dhaka nearly two months ago. A judge from a regular court denied him bail and he was eventually sent to an overcrowded detention center just outside Dhaka that UNICEF says houses nearly 700 children even though it has the capacity for about 300.

Late last month he was finally granted bail through the new virtual court.

“It feels great to be freed and get united with my parents,” Rakib told The Associated Press on Friday. “I am very happy. I have suffered in the jail a lot. That’s a bad place.”

The reunion was special for Rakib and his family as they were able to celebrate the end of Ramadan together.

“His mother burst into tears after seeing our youngest son,” said his father Mohammed Abdul Hakim. “It was a moment of joy. We love him a lot.”

On Friday, the total number of COVID-19 infections in Bangladesh stood at 60,391, with 811 deaths. Public health experts say the actual number of the infected people is likely much higher.