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Iranian press review: Iranians ignore coronavirus travel warning ahead of Nowruz holiday

Also: Activists call for temporary release of all political prisoners amid coronavirus; prank video of 'eggplant rain' sparks confusion
Firefighters disinfect streets in Tehran in a bid to halt the spread of coronavirus (AFP)

Iranians defy no-travel warning during Nowruz

Heavy traffic was reported on all highways linking Tehran to other parts of Iran on Wednesday, as residents scrambled to leave the capital ahead of Nowruz, the Persian new year festival, which begins on 20 March, despite official warnings against non-essential travel.

What is Nowruz? The Persian New Year explained
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“Travelling during Nowruz, means welcoming death,” Alireza Zali, the head of the disease control task force in Tehran, told the city’s residents ahead of the two-week holiday, reported the IRNA news agency.

The travel warning is part of the government’s efforts to contain the fast-spreading coronavirus, which has killed more than 1,100 people in the country. 

As of Wednesday, Iran had registered 17,161 COVID-19 cases: Tehran province had the highest number of new cases at 213.

But many Iranians still did not comprehend the seriousness of the coronavirus threat, Zali earlier said in an interview with the Tasnim news agency.

“People have not yet taken the coronavirus seriously, and they have yet to understand the importance and urgency of [responding to] this disease,” Zali said on Tuesday.

Deputy health minister Iraj Harirchi has also joined calls for Iranians to stop all non-essential travel to slow the spread of coronavirus.

Every hour there are three deaths and 43 new confirmed COVID-19 cases in Iran, the Fars news agency reported Haririchi as saying on Wednesday.


Activists call for temporary release of all political prisoners

Activists and family members of Iranian political prisoners have urged the country’s judiciary chief to temporarily free all political prisoners amid the coronavirus outbreak.

On Tuesday, a judiciary spokesperson said that 85,000 inmates, including political prisoners, had been temporarily released from the jails to help contain the spread of COVID-19. 

British-Iranian aid worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who is serving a five-year sentence for espionage, was among those temporarily freed, her husband confirmed in a statement.

However, political prisoners serving sentences of more than five years remain incarcerated. 

Activists say that several prominent political prisoners — including Iranian lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, human rights activist Narges Mohammadi, anti-death penalty activist Atena Daemi, filmmaker Mohammad Nourizad, and eight environmentalists — are still behind bars in prisons with poor hygiene infrastructure and at risk of catching the virus. 

There have been contradictory reports about the health condition of Sam Rajabi, one of the eight jailed environmental activists.

On Tuesday, BBC Persian reported that Rajabi had been infected with coronavirus. However the next day, his sister wrote on  Twitter that Rajabi was diagnosed with influenza and had been returned to Evin prison from the hospital.

Late on Wednesday, the Iranian Mizan news agency which covers the country’s judicial news, reported that the Iranian supreme leader would issue a pardon for 10,000 inmates, including half of political prisoners.


Conservatives praise attacks on US bases in Iraq

Iranian pro-conservative media have hailed last week’s rocket attacks targeting Camp Taji, north of Baghdad, which is used by international forces including the United States.

The attacks on US bases in Iraq demonstrated Iraqi people’s determination to expel US forces from their country, said Iranian newspapers close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

On 11 March, an attack on Camp Taji killed two American and one British soldiers. A second attack on Saturday injured two Iraqi air defence personnel.  

In response, the United States launched air strikes against pro-Iranian military factions in Iraq that killed one civilian, three Iraqi soldiers and two policemen.

The Javan daily, which has links to the IRGC, wrote in a piece -  headlined “Whispers about US forces’ exit from Iraq” - that the emergence of new military groups attacking US bases in Iraq have complicated the process of “US occupation of Iraq”.

Meanwhile, the Kayhan daily, which is also close to the conservatives’ camp, claimed that US President Donald Trump could not directly blame Iran for the attacks due to his unreadiness to respond with force

“If Trump had said that the attacks were carried out by Iran, he would be obliged to respond [to Iran], but it is clear that he cannot do anything against Iran because he is so afraid of any outcome of such [military] encounter,” the daily concluded.


Prank video sparks confusion, alarm in Iran

A short prank video showing eggplants raining from the sky in three different parts of Tehran has gone viral on Iranian social media, sparking strong reactions from citizens and officials alike.

Some Iranians shared the prank video as an actual occurrence, while others accused the authorities of producing the clip to distract the public from the weak response to the coronavirus crisis.

The Ebtekar daily warned that Iranian society’s willingness to believe fake news was dangerous. Since the US withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed devastating sanctions on the country, Iranians “have been living under the shadow of war”, the article said.

A series of crises in recent years had fed Iranian society’s readiness to believe “even the unbelievable” and to expect the worst-case scenarios, Ebtekar wrote. Events that had led to this point included rising tension between Iran and the US, the sharp fall in Iran’s oil exports, the assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the IRGC’s retaliatory missile attack on US forces bases in Iraq and the downing of a Ukrainian airplane.

Iranian police have arrested five people who made the prank video, the official news agency IRNA reported on Monday.

According to officials, a group of young artists made the video for a movie special effect project, but their creation was “abused by some people” to spread fake news.

* Iranian press review is a digest of reports that are not independently verified as accurate by Middle East Eye