A large funeral procession held near Tehran for a former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has caused outrage with its apparent disregard for the deadly coronavirus pandemic that is raging across Iran.
Several hundred people took part in the procession held in Vardavard, west of the Iranian capital, on March 24 for former IRGC Rasulollah division chief Hossein Asadollahi, according to photos published by Iranian media.
The photos highlight a clear breach of health-safety measures being preached by Iranian authorities in the fight against the coronavirus, which had officially killed 1,934 Iranians as of March 24.
Many of the mourners were seen wearing face masks but they were standing very close to each other while holding the casket of Asadollahi.
Iranian media reported he died from an "illness" caused by his exposure to chemical weapons used by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88.
Believed to be in his 60s, Asadollahi was reportedly involved in the fight against "Takfiri terrorists," meaning he played a role in Iran's efforts in Syria.
There are an estimated 100,000 such injured veterans from that conflict and many are extremely vulnerable to the coronavirus because they suffer from respiratory diseases or lung injuries.
The funeral in Vardavard comes amid the closure of schools, commercial centers, Islamic shrines, and other public places in an effort to contain the pandemic that has officially infected some 25,000 Iranians.
It also comes amid repeated government calls for citizens to remain in their homes, respect social-distancing directives, and to refrain from traveling for the Norouz holidays.
Iranians have also been told not to hold funeral ceremonies for their loved ones to help slow the outbreak of the coronavirus that has ravaged the economy and overwhelmed hospitals and health-care workers.
"The images are clear, you just have to cry. No need for an explanation," Health Ministry spokesman Kianush Jahanpur said on Twitter while posting some of the photos of the large funeral.
Others said the funeral amid the deadly pandemic had heightened the risk of infection while highlighting a disregard for the lives of Iranians. "The lives of the people are never a priority," Washington-based rights human rights activist Roya Boroumand said on Twitter.
"How are the many families who have buried their loved ones without any ceremony to protect the health of the society going to feel by seeing these images?" Tehran-based lawyer Ali Mojtahedzadeh tweeted. "Until today we thought only the living face discrimination and [injustice] but now some demonstrated that there can be discrimination even among the dead."
IRGC spokesman Ramezan Sharif said those taking part in Asadollahi's funeral march had gathered impulsively and that the procession was not organized by the powerful IRGC, which has been involved in the country's fight against the coronavirus by providing relief to the sick and taking part in sanitizing efforts.
"The presence of a few citizens, companions, and supporters of commander [Asadollahi] for his funeral and burial was spontaneous," he said.
The IRGC has faced widespread anger and criticism in recent months for the January downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet near Tehran that killed all 176 people on board, including many Iranians.
Sharif said the IRGC was committed to respecting decisions by the country's national countercoronavirus task force to refrain from holding public gatherings. The IRGC "did not plan a public funeral for Asadollahi," he was quoted as saying by domestic media on March 24.
Iran is facing one of the world's worst outbreaks of the coronavirus, which comes as the country's economy has been devastated by tough U.S. sanctions.
Estimates of the number of Iranian who have died from the pandemic are much higher than the 1,934 deaths and 24,811 cases of infection thus far reported by the Health Ministry.
Authorities have also been blamed for the intensity of the outbreak due to their initial slow response and failure to quarantine the city of Qom, where the first two deaths from COVID-19 were reported on February 19 and from where the virus is thought to have spread throughout Iran.