Iran on March 3 temporarily freed more than 54,000 inmates from prison in a move to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading, as the death toll in the country rose to at least 77, killing 23 members of the Iranian parliament.
Only inmates who had tested negative for COVID-19—the disease caused by coronavirus—and had posted bail have been released, judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili told reporters on Tuesday. The figure amounts to roughly a fifth of Iran’s jail population.
“Security prisoners” with a prison sentence of more than five years, or those considered to be a danger to the public, were not released, he said.
The decision was made as Iran’s Deputy Health Minister Alireza Raisi announced on state TV on Tuesday that 77 people have died and 2,336 have been infected by the novel coronavirus in Iran. The number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection rose sharply from 1,501 on March 2.
Both Iran and Italy have the highest number of deaths from the coronavirus outside of China, where the virus originated.
Esmaili said that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a 41-year-old British-Iranian woman convicted of espionage charges, as well as a number of prominent Iranian political prisoners, may be released from prison.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe has tested negative for the coronavirus, Iran told the UK Foreign Office, after her husband said Saturday he believed she had contracted the disease at Evin prison in Tehran. He claimed authorities were refusing to test her for the virus.
“I know I need to get medicine to get better,” Zaghari-Ratcliffe told The Times of London on Monday.
Esmaili said on Monday she had contacted her family and “told them about her good health,” according to the BBC.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe was at the airport in Iran on April 3, 2016, ready to return to the UK when she was detained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, according to her family.
She maintains her innocence and was reportedly visiting her family in Iran to celebrate the new year, BBC reported.
As cases of the novel coronavirus in the country continue to surge, authorities have called on Iranians to avoid public places and stay at home, while schools, universities, cultural, and sports centers have been temporarily closed.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Tuesday that Iranians should follow the recommendations of authorities to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Speaking on state TV, he also described the outbreak as “not something extraordinary.”
Several officials have been infected—including the head of Iran’s emergency medical services, ILNA news agency reported on Tuesday. The death of one top official was reported on Monday.
Khamenei said government bodies and the armed forces should give full support to the health ministry and that Iranian authorities have dealt transparently with the virus’s spread.
“Don’t violate the recommendations and instructions of the responsible authorities in terms of prevention, in terms of keeping hands, face, and living environment clean and not infecting these and preventing the infection of these,” he said.
Khamenei also said the outbreak should not be overblown.
“The issue is an issue that will pass. It’s not something extraordinary,” he said. “I don’t want to minimize the issue but let’s not make it very big either.
“It’s an issue that has occurred, it’s for a period … that inshallah will not be very long.”
The announcement of dozens of deaths and hundreds of infections from coronavirus has led some Iranians on social media to accuse authorities of a cover up.
Reuters contributed to this report.