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Amid surge in COVID-19, Iraq’s Shia mourn Imam Hussein | News



Baghdad, Iraq – Ahead of a solemn mourning period for Shia Muslims, the message from the old man came through loud and clear: Coronavirus will not stop us from observing our ceremonies.

“Listen to me!” the white-bearded man said in a video that went viral on social media as he addressed a crowd of worshippers inside a revered shrine.

“Whether coronavirus exists or not, we will maintain our rituals as usual,” he said, referring to the commemoration of the seventh-century death of Imam Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad.

“Here we are at your service, oh Hussein,” the worshippers replied, pumping their fists in the air. Some expressed their emotion by crying.

While Iraqi health authorities are struggling to contain the rocketing number of COVID-19 cases, a new challenge is popped up: Mass gatherings of mourners determined to observe their weeks-long ceremonies.

Many of them have shrugged off calls by the government and moderate Shia religious leaders to stay home or apply protective measures during ceremonies, posing threats to the country’s fragile healthcare system.

The mourning period will be the one of “coexistence with coronavirus whether accepted or not by those in charge”, the man continued.

Iraq’s Higher Committee for Health and Public Safety decided not to allow foreign pilgrims to enter the country [Sinan S Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]

Ritual for millions of Shia Muslims

Back in 680 AD, Imam Hussein led a revolt against the Damascus-based second Umayyad caliph, Yazid bin Muawiyah, who dispatched an army that later slaughtered him and most of his family outside the city of Karbala in present-day Iraq.

Since then, his death has been a defining moment in Islamic history and has become the most impassioned event for Shia Muslims around the world.

In Iraq and beyond, millions of Shia Muslims observe with different rituals the death anniversary that falls on the tenth day of the Islamic month of Muharram as well as the fortieth day of his death in the following month of Safar.

During the nearly 50-day mourning period, throngs of Shia Muslims from all walks of life march to the shrines of Imam Hussein and his brother Abbas in Karbala. They gather to hold funerals inside mosques or public areas in order to recite the accounts of the battle, weep and beat their chests and heads in grief.

In other rituals, mourners gather in lines or circles to flog themselves with knives and chains. Some perform plays in public areas to retell the details of the battle that draw crowds who react with wails. Food is prepared in large pots for mourners and passers-by.

In a bid to contain any possible spread of the disease, Iraq’s Higher Committee for Health and Public Safety decided not to allow foreign pilgrims to enter the country and to impose a travel ban between provinces. It also called on mourners to wear masks and practice social distancing.

And the most spiritual Shia leader, Grand Ayatollah Sayyed Ali al-Sistani, called on followers to stay home and follow up with live feeds of funeral sessions on TV and internet. Al-Sistani also urged “strict compliance” to the directions issued by the authorities while in public areas.

But such calls have fallen on deaf ears.

Pilgrims started to flock to Karbala on Friday, the first day of Muharram, using unmonitored agricultural roads, while safe physical distancing is still a distant dream during some funeral processions.

In one video on social media, dozens of mourners poured into the shrine from a narrow gate shoulder-to-shoulder with many of them not wearing masks.

Others abide by the measures.

Baghdad resident Falah Hassan Mohammed wore a mask while serving mourners tea, cookies and eats from a tent he erected on the sidewalk in the northern neighbourhood of Utaifiyah.

Iraqi Shia Muslims commemorate Ashoura [Sinan Mahmoud]

Iraqi Shia Muslims commemorate Ashoura [Sinan Mahmoud] [Al Jazeera]

“Imam Hussein ceremonies are in our blood, we can’t cancel them because of coronavirus,” said the 51-year-old Mohammed. “All shopping malls and swimming pools are allowed to open why we should cancel the ceremonies?” he said.

To avoid virus transmission, he offers tea in disposable cups, does not allow people to gather at his tent, and encourages distance for those who pray.

‘Super transmission events’

Late in February, Iraq announced its first case of the novel coronavirus after an Iranian man tested positive. Afterwards, cases have been popping up in different areas, mainly among Iraqis who came from Iran.

Authorities managed to somehow contain the spread by imposing lockdowns and other measures. But the country has seen a surge in confirmed cases since mid-May as the government eased restrictions.

Since then, the average number of daily infections has inched up to hundreds and is now hovering at about 4,000, posing a threat to the country’s already crumbling healthcare system.

As of Sunday, the total number of confirmed cases stood at 204,341, with 6,428 related deaths.

In a statement issued ahead of the Muharram mourning period, WHO said the pandemic in Iraq hit “an alarming and worrying level, suggesting a major health crisis soon” and called on Iraqis to “diligently apply preventive measures”.

WHO added that among the more than 175,000 reported cases and 5,800 related deaths as of August 16, more than 98 percent of the cases and deaths were reported during just the last three months.

“Many parts of Iraq are now considered to be suffering from community-wide transmission of the virus: an alarming and dangerous situation that requires urgent and serious measures,” it warned.

To slow the virus transmission and reduce deaths, it said, Iraq needs to adjust its COVID-19 preparedness, readiness and response actions.

Iraqi Shia Muslims commemorate Ashoura [Sinan Mahmoud]

Iraq has seen a surge in confirmed cases since mid-May as the government eased restrictions [Sinan Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]

It described the mourning period as “super transmission events”.

“If we are to ensure the protection of people from the disease and prevent super transmissions, mass assemblies of people should not take place at this stage,” WHO said. 

With many countries gradually reopening economies, owners of businesses linked to religious tourism are calling for the reconsideration of restrictions to salvage their businesses that have been badly hit since the outbreak of anti-government protest in October, as well as lockdowns.

About 850 hotels and hundreds of restaurants in the cities of Karbala and Najaf – prime destinations for millions of local and foreign pilgrims – are now empty, according to Saib Radhi Abu Ghanim, who heads Najaf-based Hotels and Restaurants Association.

“This sector is considered clinically dead in both Karbala and Najaf,” Abu Ghanim said, adding that nearly 95 percent of the employees have been laid off with an average of at least 12 employees for hotels and 50 in restaurants.

He suggests “first aid” from the government in a form of long-term loans with a low interest rate along with tax and fees exemptions. He also called on authorities to remove restrictions on pilgrims and consider PCR tests at airports for foreigners like other countries.

Iraq Ashoura

Iraqi health authorities are struggling to contain the rocketing number of COVID-19 cases [Sinan S Mahmoud/Al Jazeera]

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FDC activists win Bank of Uganda pig case by simply keeping quiet




FDC activists Augustine Ojobile and Robert Mayanja

Buganda Road Magistrate’s court has acquitted two opposition Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) activists Augustine Ojobile and Robert Mayanja of common nuisance charges.

FDC deputy chief administrative officer Ojobile and Mayanja have been acquitted by the grade one magistrate Fidelis Otwao on charges stemming from their protest held in November 2018 when they carried pig heads to the central police station (CPS) in Kampala protesting the rot in the Bank of Uganda that had reportedly resulted into the closure of a number of commercial banks in the country for many years.

According to them, corruption at the Central bank had been the sole ingredient for the closure of commercial banks in Uganda over the years because it reportedly mismanaged them and made erroneous decisions that led to their closure.

With fresh pig heads tied around their necks and stinking blood oozing across their white T-shirts, Mayanja and Ojobile walked through the streets of Kampala to the police in a protest that was spearheaded by their pressure group known as the Jobless Youth.

One pig head had a placard bearing the name of the former and late BOU governor Emmanuel Tumusiime Mutebile and the other of his former deputy Louis Kasekende.

The protest at CPS came a few days after another that was staged at the Central bank where two piglets were dumped bearing the name of Juma Kisaame (a Muslim), the former managing director of DFCU bank. 

As a result, the duo was arrested and taken to Buganda Road court on charges of common nuisance and the prosecution adduced evidence from five witnesses who included police officers and Muslims who were reportedly angered by the protest.

According to the witnesses, the actions of Mayanja and Ojobile were annoying to the people whose names were mentioned and tagged on pig heads, and the smell that was coming out of the fresh pig heads was most likely to result in injury to a considerable number of the public by affecting their health, and the protest affected businesses since some shops allegedly had to close to see what was happening outside due to their commotion.

But when Mayanja and Ojobile were asked to defend themselves over the allegations, the duo that didn’t have legal representation chose to keep quiet as their defense and let the court make its decision based on what the prosecution witnesses had testified to.

In a judgement read today Friday by Otwao, he indicated that the evidence from the prosecution witnesses is wanting because none of the people alleged to have been annoyed by the actions of the activists testified in the case or recorded a statement with police.

According to Otwao, the testimonies were based on what the witnesses were feeling as individuals and that there were no abusive statements on the pig heads that the prosecution had indicated which would cause annoyance, save for putting the names of people only. 

As such, the court has ruled that such testimonies cannot be relied on to convict a person because the prosecution has failed to prove that there was common injury, danger to the public or destruction of property.

Consequently, the magistrate has acquitted the duo and directed that each of them starts the process to seek a refund of the Shs 500,000 that each had paid to be released on bail.

The activists have welcomed the ruling saying that the court has recognized that the citizens have a right to protest peacefully.

The pig protests have been commonly used by activists who subscribe to this group known as the Jobless Brotherhood which has since rebranded to the “Alternative”.

In 2016, their members including Luta Ferdinand who is now facing trial in the court-martial on different charges, and Joseph Lukwago were arrested for dumping piglets at parliament protesting the Shs 200 million given to each MP for buying personal cars.

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Saudi Arabia executes 81 people in a single day | Death Penalty News




The death penalty applied for a range of charges in the largest known mass execution carried out in the kingdom’s modern history.

Saudi Arabia has executed 81 men over the past 24 hours, including seven Yemenis and one Syrian national, on charges including “allegiance to foreign terrorist organisations” and holding “deviant beliefs”, state news agency Saudi Press Agency said, in the largest known mass execution carried out in the kingdom in its modern history.

The number dwarfed the 67 executions reported in the kingdom in 2021 and the 27 in 2020.

“These individuals … were convicted of various crimes including murdering innocent men, women and children,” SPA said on Saturday, citing a statement from the interior ministry.

“Crimes committed by these individuals also include pledging allegiance to foreign terrorist organisations, such as ISIS [ISIL], al-Qaeda and the Houthis,” it added.

Some travelled to conflict zones to join “terrorist organisations”, according to the SPA.

“The accused were provided with the right to an attorney and were guaranteed their full rights under Saudi law during the judicial process,” it said.

“The kingdom will continue to take a strict and unwavering stance against terrorism and extremist ideologies that threaten the stability of the entire world,” the report added.

The men included 37 Saudi nationals who were found guilty in a single case for attempting to assassinate security officers and targeting police stations and convoys, the report added.

Saudi Arabia’s last mass execution was in January 2016, when the kingdom executed 47 people, including a prominent opposition Shia leader who had rallied demonstrations in the kingdom.

In 2019, the kingdom beheaded 37 Saudi citizens, most of them minority Shia, in a mass execution across the country for alleged “terrorism”-related crimes.

Saudi Arabia’s human rights records have been under increasing scrutiny from rights groups and Western allies since the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

It has faced strong criticism of its restrictive laws on political and religious expression, and the implementation of the death penalty, including for defendants arrested when they were minors.

Saudi Arabia denies accusations of human rights abuses and says it protects its national security according to its laws.

SPA said the accused were provided with the right to a lawyer and were guaranteed their full rights under Saudi law during the judicial process.

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Nigerian student in Ukraine: 'Mummy we keep hearing bombs'




Hauwa’s son Suleiman is a Nigerian student in Sumy – she says the family are fearful and anxious.

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