Iran prohibits ‘unnecessary’ travel as expert warns ‘millions’ could die

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Bank employees wear protective face masks and clothes in Tehran. (Reuters)
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The supreme leader has previously said Iran was being transparent with its figures on the outbreak. (File/Khamenei.IR/AFP)
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Updated 17 March 2020

Iran prohibits ‘unnecessary’ travel as expert warns ‘millions’ could die

  • The death toll in Iran saw another 13 percent increase Tuesday

TEHRAN: Iran issued its most dire warning yet Tuesday about the outbreak of the new coronavirus ravaging the country, suggesting “millions” could die in the Islamic Republic if the public keeps traveling and ignoring health guidance.

A state television journalist who also is a medical doctor gave the warning only hours after hard-line Shiite faithful the previous night pushed their way into the courtyards of two major shrines that had just been closed over fears of the virus. Meanwhile, Iran's supreme leader issued a religious ruling prohibiting “unnecessary” travel in the country.

Roughly nine out of 10 of the over 18,000 cases of the new virus confirmed across the Middle East come from Iran, where authorities denied for days the risk the outbreak posed. Officials have now implemented new checks for people trying to leave major cities ahead of Nowruz, the Persian New Year, on Friday, but have hesitated to quarantine the areas.

That's even as the death toll in Iran saw another 13% increase Tuesday. Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour said the virus had killed 135 more people to raise the total to 988 amid over 16,000 cases. Jordan meanwhile prepared for a shutdown of its own over the virus, banning gatherings drawing more than 10 people, as neighboring Israel issued its own strict new guidelines for life under the coronavirus threat.

Most people infected by the new coronavirus experience only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and recover within weeks. But the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by people with no visible symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

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The Iranian state TV journalist, Dr. Afruz Eslami, cited a study by Tehran's prestigious Sharif University of Technology, which offered three scenarios. If people begin to cooperate now, Iran will see 120,000 infections and 12,000 deaths before the outbreak is over, she said. If they offer medium cooperation, there will be 300,000 cases and 110,000 deaths, she said.

But if people fail to follow any guidance, it could collapse Iran's already-strained medical system, Eslami said. If the “medical facilities are not sufficient, there will be 4 million cases, and 3.5 million people will die,” she said.

Eslami did not elaborate on what metrics the study used, but even reporting it on Iran’s tightly controlled state television represented a major change for a country whose officials had for days denied the severity of the crisis.

Underlining that urgency was the fatwa issued by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, which prohibited “unnecessary” travel. It comes as the public ignored repeated warnings and pleas from security forces. Such a decree is a rare move by Khamenei, who has final say on all state matters.

Late on Monday night, angry crowds stormed into the courtyards of Mashhad's Imam Reza shrine and Qom's Fatima Masumeh shrine. Crowds typically pray there 24 hours a day, seven days a week, touching and kissing the shrine. That's worried health officials, who for weeks ordered Iran's Shiite clergy to close them.

Earlier on Monday, the state TV had announced the shrines' closure, sparking the demonstrations.

“We are here to say that Tehran is damn wrong to do that!” one Shiite cleric shouted at the shrine in Mashhad, according to online video. Others joined him in chanting: “The health minister is damn wrong to do that, the president is damn wrong to do that!”

Police later dispersed the crowds, state media reported. Religious authorities and a prominent Qom seminary called the demonstration an “insult” to the shrine in a statement, urging the faithful to rely on “wisdom and patience” amid the closure.

Iran's shrines draw Shiites from all over the Mideast for pilgrimages, likely contributing to the spread of the virus across the region. Saudi Arabia earlier closed off Islam’s holiest sites over fear of the virus spreading.

President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday said despite the closures, “our soul is closer to the saints more than at any time.”

State TV reported that Iran had deployed teams to screen travelers leaving major cities in 13 provinces, including the capital, Tehran. But Iran has 31 provinces and authorities haven't taken the step to lock down the country like in the allied nations of Iraq and Lebanon.

The teams check travelers' temperatures and will send those with fevers to quarantine centers. Iran has been urging people to stay home, but many have ignored the call.

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Apparently in efforts to curb the spread of the virus, Iran has released 85,000 prisoners on temporary leave, judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said Tuesday. He said that included half of all “security-related” prisoners, without elaborating. Western nations have called on Iran to release dual nationals and others held allegedly as bargaining chips in negotiations.

Among those released is Mohammad Hossein Karroubi, the son of opposition leader Mehdi Karroubi, who was in jail for nearly two months.

Egypt, which has 166 confirmed cases of the new virus including four fatalities, announced Tuesday the lockdown of the Red Sea province that includes the popular esort town of Hurghada. Local authorities barred workers in all tourist sites, hotels, bazaars and restaurants from leaving the province and imposed a 14-day quarantine, according to a document from the Red Sea governor's office obtained by The Associated Press. Visitors to the province were prohibited for the next two weeks.

The kingdom of Jordan deployed troops outside of major cities to block travel on Tuesday. It also ordered newspapers to cease publishing, banned gatherings of more than 10 people and established a quarantine zone at Dead Sea hotels. It halted all private sector work and public transportation as well.

In Oman, the sultanate announced anyone coming from abroad would be subject to quarantine.

Meanwhile in Israel, the Defense Ministry plans to use near-empty hotel facilities, ravaged by the crash in tourism, as recovery centers for patients diagnosed with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus. Israel also called on citizens to remain in their homes, closing parks, museums, libraries, beaches and other public areas.

Only short walks outside with family members and pets are permitted.


Accusations of serial assault spark new #MeToo wave in Egypt

Updated 13 July 2020

Accusations of serial assault spark new #MeToo wave in Egypt

  • Activists say the case shows that misogyny cuts across the country’s stark class lines
  • In Egypt, sexual assault complaints have typically involved street harassment

CAIRO: Their accounts are similar. The girls and women describe meeting the young man — a former student at Egypt’s most elite university — in person and online, followed by deceit, then escalating sexual harassment, assault, blackmail or rape.
Some were minors when the alleged crimes took place. In all, more than 100 accusers have emerged online in the past two weeks.
It’s resulted in a new #MeToo firestorm on social media, and the arrest of the suspect last week from his home in a gated community outside Cairo.
Activists say the case shows that misogyny cuts across the country’s stark class lines; many in Egypt have previously portrayed harassment as a problem of poor urban youth.
Women’s rights champions hope the authorities’ swift response signals change in how Egyptian society handles accusations of sexual assault.
“What’s before this case is totally different from what’s after,” said Nihad Abuel-Komsan, head of the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights and a lawyer representing some of the alleged victims.
Sexual assault and harassment are deep-seated problems in Egypt, where victims must also fight the undercurrent of a conservative culture that typically ties female chastity to a family’s reputation. In courts, the burden of proof lies heavily on the victim of such crimes.
In a statement, the public prosecutor’s officer said the accused man acknowledged he blackmailed at least six girls, saying he would send sensitive photos of them to their families if they cut ties. Several attempts by The Associated Press to contact him or his lawyer were unsuccessful.
Amr Adib, Egypt’s most prominent TV host, said in a recent episode that he’d spoken with the young man’s father, who occupies a high-ranking position at a telecommunication company. He said his son dismissed the allegations.
At least 10 women have officially reported their claims, according to Abuel-Komsan, of the women’s rights center. Activists also set up the Instagram account @assaultpolice to collect allegations, said Sabah Khodir, a US-based writer who helps run the account. She said there are more than 100 accounts.
“We are demanding to be listened to … We are just using what we have, lending our voices to hopefully create some kind of change,” she said.
A court has ordered the accused to remain in custody pending an investigation into an array of accusations that include attempted rape, blackmail and indecent assault, according to a five-page statement by the public prosecutor. In the same statement, the prosecutor urged more alleged victims to come forward.
Last week, the government of President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi moved to amend the country’s criminal law to increase protections for the identities of sexual assault victims, which activists have welcomed. The amendment still needs parliamentary approval and El-Sisi’s signature to be made law.
The allegations against the student cover a period of at least three years.
Many of the anonymous accounts appear to be from fellow students at the American International School, one of the country’s most expensive private high schools, and the American University in Cairo, which school officials said the accused left in 2018. It would appear that he then enrolled at the European Union Business School in Spain, in an online program last year.
In February, he spent three weeks at its Barcelona campus, but the school expelled him after an accusation of online harassment that was subsequently proved false, said Claire Basterfield, a spokesperson for the EUBS. The school has filed a 54-page criminal complaint with the Spanish police, seeking further investigation into his actions.
The head of the American University in Cairo, Francis Ricciardone, said the university has a zero-tolerance policy concerning sexual harassment, but that he would not comment on an ongoing case.
According to accusations posted on social media in the past two weeks, the former student would mine the pool of mutual friends on Facebook, online groups or school clubs. He would start with flattery, then pressure the women and girls to share intimate photos that he later used to blackmail them to have sex with him. If they did not, he would threaten to send the pictures to their family.
In some cases, he “attracted their sympathy by claiming he was going through a crisis,” then lured them to his home in an upscale compound where he sexually assaulted them, the prosecutor’s statement alleged.
In Egypt, sexual assault complaints have typically involved street harassment. During and after the 2011 uprising that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, women were frequently harassed, groped — and in some cases, beaten and sexually assaulted — during mass protests.
This time, there are signs of wider ripples throughout the society. The current series of complaints has prompted Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the Sunni Muslim world’s foremost religious institution, to speak out on sexual harassment and assault, even challenging the widely held belief that a woman is at fault if her clothing is less than modest. It’s a departure from the norm for the conservative Muslim majority country where most women wear headscarves.
There are also other corners where accusations of sexual harassment are emerging, such as in civil society groups and businesses.
Two rights groups said they fired one employee and suspended another, and opened investigations after allegations of sexual misconduct against them were made public. Authorities also detained a prominent publisher over the weekend after a poet filed a complaint with the Cairo police, accusing him of sexually harassing her, the state-run Al-Ahram reported. The publisher denied the allegations in a Facebook posting. He was released late Sunday on 5,000 Egyptian pounds ($313) in bail, pending an investigation.
The recent cases — reaching into the Egyptian elite — have “refuted all previous arguments and justifications for harassment, from poverty to illiteracy and things like that,” Abuel-Komsan said.