Iran’s supreme leader hints at ban on mass gatherings during Ramadan

By Jon Gambrell, Associated Press

Iran’s supreme leader has suggested mass gatherings may be barred during Ramadan due to the coronavirus pandemic, as Amnesty International said it believed at least 35 prisoners were killed by security forces amid rioting over the virus.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made a televised address as Iran prepares to restart economic activity while suffering one of the world’s worst outbreaks.

He is the highest-ranking official in the Muslim world to acknowledge that the month of fasting and reflection will be disrupted by the virus and the Covid-19 illness it causes.

“We are going to be deprived of public gatherings of the month of Ramadan,” he said during a speech marking the birth of Imam Mahdi.

“Those gatherings are meetings for praying to god or listening to speeches which are really valuable. In the absence of these meetings, remember to heed your prayers and devotions in your lonesomeness.”

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (AP)

Ramadan is set to begin in late April and last through most of May. Public officials had not yet discussed plans for the holy month, which sees the Muslim faithful fast from dawn until sunset. Mosques have been closed and Friday prayers cancelled across the country for fear of the virus spreading among those attending.

Mr Khamenei urged the Shiite faithful to pray in their homes during Ramadan. Shiites typically pray communally, especially during Ramadan, which sees communities share meals and greetings each night.

Iran has reported more than 66,000 confirmed cases of the virus, with over 4,100 deaths, but experts have repeatedly questioned those numbers, especially as Iran initially downplayed the outbreak in February amid the 41st anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution and a crucial parliamentary vote.

The supreme leader’s comments come after Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowments on Tuesday called off all celebrations and late-evening prayer services for Ramadan in the Arab world’s most populous country. Mosques and churches have already closed for prayer across Egypt, which has had over 100 deaths and more than 1,500 confirmed cases.

(PA Graphics)

Amnesty International reported that thousands of prisoners in at least eight prisons had rioted over their fears about potentially contracting the virus while incarcerated.

The rights group said it believed at least 35 were killed by security forces. There have been sporadic reports in Iranian media about the riots, with only one fatality claimed.

Amnesty cited “independent sources including prisoners’ families” to report the fatalities. It said security forces used live ammunition and tear gas to suppress protests. Footage earlier verified by the Associated Press showed thick black smoke rising over one prison in south-western Iran.

“It is abhorrent that instead of responding to prisoners’ legitimate demands to be protected from Covid-19, Iranian authorities have yet again resorted to killing people to silence their concerns,” Amnesty’s Diana Eltahawy said in a statement.

Estimates suggest the Islamic Republic’s prison system held 150,000 prisoners just before the pandemic. Iran has since temporarily released 105,000 prisoners. Those who remain held include violent offenders and so-called “security” cases often involving political prisoners.