March 3 (UPI) -- Iran said Tuesday it is temporarily releasing tens of thousands of prisoners in an attempt to stymie the spread of the deadly coronavirus among the country's inmates as it struggles to contain one of the world's worst COVID-19 epidemics.
Iran's judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili told reporters the Middle Eastern country will be releasing more than 54,000 inmates from its crowded prison system on furlough after they test negative for the virus and post bail.
Among the prisoners could be British citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who was arrested in April 2016 by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard while attempting to board a Britain-bound flight with her then-22-month-old daughter at Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport.
Tulip Siddiq, Labor MP for Britain's Hampstead and Kilburn region, said via Twitter that Iranian Ambassador to Britain, Hamid Baeidinejad, told her Zaghari-Ratcliffe may be released from Evin Pail in Tehran Tuesday or Wednesday.
"If this furlough happens, the British government have an obligation to make it permanent, and not let her be used as a bargaining chip in the weeks to come," Siddiq said. "I remain concerned that Nazanin has told her family that she has still not been tested for coronavirus."
Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a 41-year-old charity worker, was sentenced to a five-year prison term for spying, according to Amnesty International, which said Tuesday her family is worried she may have contracted the virus that has killed more than 3,000 people worldwide.
"Though it remains unconfirmed, the slightest possibility of prisoners being exposed to the coronavirus in Evin jail raises grave concerns and is a chilling prospect for Nazanin and other prisoners, including jailed human rights defenders," Amnesty International Britain Director Kate Allen wrote in a statement.
Baeidinejad rejected claims that Zaghari-Ratcliffe may have contracted the virus, responding via Twitter that Esmail said she was "in good health" and has not been "affected" by COVID-19.
"[Esmail] added that one of the prisoners with security charge will be granted a furlough today or tomorrow to join family," he said, without elaborating who that might be.
A second Labor member of Parliament, Emily Thornberry, also called on Iran via Twitter to release Zaghari-Ratcliffe, urging it to "show the humanity, compassion and generosity that unites our peoples, and let Nazanin come home."
On Tuesday, Siddiq told her fellow ministers amid reports that at least one inmate at the jail has died from COVID-19 that Iranian officials have refused "point-blank" to test Zaghari-Ratcliffe.
At least 77 people have died amid the coronavirus outbreak in Iran as of Tuesday, according to Iran's Ministry of Health, state-run Press TV reported, making the Middle Eastern country responsible for the most deaths due to the virus second only to China where the disease emerged in December.
The country has recorded 2,336 confirmed cases of the virus and has ties to infections in several countries, some as far away as Canada.
The country's religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on Iranians Tuesday to heed the directives of health officials in the battle against the virus.
"These orders should not at all be violated as God has obliged us to take responsibility for our own health and for that of others," he said. "Therefore, anything that contributes to the society's health and helps prevent the spread of the disease is a virtue and ... whatever facilitates its spread is a sin."
The World Health Organization said in a statement Monday that a team has arrived in Tehran to support its response to the epidemic by identifying at-risk populations and providing guidance.
The plane that brought the team to Iran also shipped medical supplies and protective equipment for more than 15,000 healthcare providers and laboratory kits to test nearly 100,000 people.
"We are in unchartered territory with COVID-19," WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said via Twitter. "We have never before seen a respiratory pathogen that is capable of community transmission, but which can also be contained with the right measures."
As Iran releases prisoners in its battle against the virus, epidemics deepened around the globe aside from China where on Tuesday health officials confirmed 125 cases of the deadly coronavirus over the day prior, the lowest number of recorded cases in a 24-hour period for the Asian country since Jan. 20. It also recorded 31 deaths, increasing its death toll to 2,943.
As the Chinese data was announced, countries in Europe, the Middle East and Africa were confirming first cases, pushing the number of nations and territories infected with the coronavirus to more than 70.
Andorra, Indonesia, Jordan, Latvia, Morocco, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Senegal and Tunisia announced their first patients infected with the virus in the previous 24 hours, while the worst-affected nations of South Korea, Italy and Iran continued to see their numbers of deaths and confirmed cases grow.
Outside China, South Korea has the most COVID-19 patients with 5,186 as of Tuesday evening, an increase of 374 from that morning, prompting President Moon Jae-in to declare "war" against the virus.
"The crisis in Daegu-North Gyeongsang has reached its peak, and the whole country is at war against the infectious disease," Moon said during a Tuesday press conference, referring to the area hardest hit by the virus. "We believe that inspecting large numbers of people at the fastest speed in the world and making the results transparent and quick is the best thing we can do at this stage to prevent the spread of local infections."
Italy reported a surge Monday evening of nearly 350 more cases from the day prior, for a total of 2,036 infected patients. It also recorded 18 more deaths for a tally of 52, according to the Ministry of Health.
According to the WHO, as of Tuesday, the outbreak has grown to 90,893 cases worldwide and 3,110 deaths.