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(Beirut) – Iran’s judiciary should abandon charges and quash the verdicts against 11 members of a Sufi sect convicted in unfair trials and informed of their sentences in July 2013. Those in detention should be freed immediately and unconditionally.

The evidence suggests that all 11 were prosecuted and convicted solely because of their peaceful activities on behalf of the largest Sufi order in Iran or in connection with their contributions to a news website dedicated to uncovering rights abuses against members of the order.

“The Sufi trials bore all the hallmarks of a classic witch hunt,” said Tamara Alrifai, Middle East advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “It seems that authorities targeted these members of one of Iran’s most vulnerable minorities because they tried to give voice to the defense of Sufi rights.”

On July 18, four of the defendants learned that Branch 2 of the Revolutionary Court in Shiraz had sentenced them to prison terms ranging from one year to three years, followed by periods of internal exile, which bars them from living in their hometowns. The four are out on bail.

On July 10, a revolutionary court in Tehran announced prison sentences against seven Sufis ranging from seven-and-a-half to ten-and-a-half years. They were banned from social, legal, and journalistic activities related to the Sufi order for five years after their release. All are in Tehran’s Evin Prison.

The Majzooban-e Noor website, to which some of the defendants contributed, said the defendants in the Tehran case have refused to file appeals in protest against numerous pre-trial irregularities and ill-treatment in detention by Intelligence Ministry agents. The four defendants in the Shiraz case plan to file appeals.

Branch 2 of Shiraz’s Revolutionary Court convicted the four defendants of membership in an “anti-government” group intent on endangering national security, a reference to the website, and of disseminating “propaganda against the state.” According to the judgment, the court sentenced Saleh Moradi to three years in prison and three years of internal exile in Hormozgan province, Farzaneh Nouri to two years in prison and three years in Khuzestan province, Behzad Nouri to two years in prison and three years in Bushehr province, and Farzad Darvish to a year in prison and three years in Sistan and Baluchistan province.

Branch 15 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court convicted the seven others of “membership in a sect endangering national security,” “propaganda against the state,” “insulting the Supreme Leader,” “disturbing the public mind,” “establishing and membership in a deviant group,” and “disrupting the public order,” the judgment said. The court sentenced Hamid-Reza Moradi to ten-and-a-half years, Reza Entesari to eight-and-a-half years, and Amir Eslami, Afshin Karampour, Farshid Yadollahi, Omid Behrouzi, and Mostafa Daneshjoo each to seven-and-a-half years.

Eslami, Yadollahi, Daneshjoo, and Behrouzi write for the web site and are lawyers who defended clients affiliated with the Nematollahi Gonabadi Sufi order.

The Nematollahi Gonabadis consider themselves followers of Twelver Shia Islam, the official state religion in Iran. The Iranian government, however, considers them members of a “deviant group,” and has increasingly harassed, arrested, and prosecuted them. At least seven other members of the order are in Evin Prison and Shiraz’s Adel Abad Prison on politically motivated national security charges related to their website activities.

Farhad Nouri, the son of Farzaneh Nouri and an administrator for the website, told Human Rights Watch that of the four defendants sentenced in Shiraz, only Moradi and Behzad Nouri contributed to the site, and the others were apparently targeted because they were affiliated with the Nematollahi Gonabadi order.

Family members of some of the defendants said that the group sentenced in Tehran boycotted the court proceedings and did not attend their trial because the court prevented them from meeting with their lawyers or reviewing the Intelligence Ministry’s case against them both before and during their trial, and intelligence agents physically and psychologically abused them during pretrial detention.

In January, the seven defendants wrote a letter to the chief judge of Branch 15 of the court, Judge Salavati, calling the court illegitimate and submitting numerous reasons why they chose not to appear or defend themselves. The mother of one of the detainees and the wives of two others told Human Rights Watch that the defendants would not appeal the lower court’s decision because they view the entire process as illegitimate.

The wife of one defendant said that her husband and the other defendants also lodged a complaint against the judge for irregularities and abuses they experienced in detention. She said that the judge then ordered prison guards to cut off family visits and transfer the defendants to solitary confinement in the Intelligence Ministry-controlled Ward 209 of Evin Prison for nearly three months, during which they were harassed and beaten. The family members said that the defendants were returned to Ward 350 in mid-April and have since been allowed family visits.

The website said the judge also prevented Daneshjoo and Hamid-Reza Moradi from leaving Evin Prison to receive critical treatments for blocked arteries and asthma that doctors had ordered.

Both Iranian law and international law require prison authorities to provide basic necessities to all prisoners and to treat them with dignity and respect. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party, prohibits inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In 2004, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention criticized Iran’s systematic use of solitary confinement and noted, “[S]uch absolute solitary confinement, when it is of a long duration, can be likened to inhuman treatment within the meaning of the Convention Against Torture.” The UN Basic Principles on the Treatment of Prisoners state that, “Efforts addressed to the abolition of solitary confinement as a punishment, or to the restriction of its use, should be undertaken and encouraged.”

Article 14 of the ICCPR requires Iran to ensure the right to a fair trial of anyone brought before the criminal courts. This includes the right “to have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defence and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing” Article 18 of the ICCPR requires Iran to secure the right to freedom of conscience or religion to everyone within its jurisdiction. Article 27 requires Iran to ensure the right of all members of religious minorities to profess and practice their own religion.

“There is plenty of evidence suggesting that the judiciary prosecuted these defendants solely because of their peaceful activities on behalf of their Sufi order,” Alrifai said. “In light of these serious irregularities, there is no justifiable reason to keep these defendants behind bars.”

For background information, please see below.

Farhad Nouri told Human Rights Watch that Intelligence Ministry agents initially arrested his mother, Farzaneh Nouri, in September 2011 to pressure her to reveal her son’s whereabouts. He said his mother spent approximately three weeks in solitary confinement in an Intelligence Ministry detention facility and was eventually released on bail, then charged and prosecuted. Nouri said his mother had absolutely nothing to do with the Majzooban-e Noor website and had been targeted to pressure him to turn himself in. “Her only crime is that she’s my mother,” he said.

Farhad Nouri escaped Iran on September 11, 2011, and is seeking asylum in neighboring Turkey.

Maryam Shirini, Eslami’s wife, said the seven defendants lodged a formal complaint against Judge Salavati for various procedural irregularities and rights violations since their arrest. In the letter, the defendants referred to “being subjected to physical beatings and insults during arrest and interrogation,” preventing the defendants and their lawyers from reviewing the case files, preventing the defendants from meeting with their lawyers, “detention in solitary confinement cells and security wards for nearly four months,” and “use of blindfolds and handcuffs during interrogation,” among other due process violations.

The family members said they believe that their relatives were prosecuted and convicted because they worked for the Majzooban-e Noor website, providing information on rights violations against members of the Nematollahi Gonabadi order. Jamileh Shahbazian, Entesari’s mother, said that her son, a photojournalist, began working for the Majzooban-e Noor site after authorities fired him from several state media jobs because of his affiliation with the order. She said the authorities “want to not only deprive [Sufis] of the right to freedom of expression but also the right to a fair trial.”

Daneshjoo’s wife told Human Rights Watch that her lawyer husband and his lawyers told her that the authorities have deprived all the defendants of access to their lawyers and the right to review their own case files. She said she feels the authorities convicted her husband of “propaganda against the state” in part because he had given media interviews on behalf of clients who are members of the order. She also said that the charge of “insulting the Supreme Leader” related to an open letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the website in 2010 in which the authors accused the authorities of targeting members of the order in an “organized fashion,” including destroying their houses of worship, denying them the right to conduct rituals, firing them from government posts, and arbitrarily arresting and detaining them.

Unlike the other six defendants, before his prosecution on charges related to the web site, Daneshjoo had been serving a seven-month prison sentence for “publishing lies” and “disturbing the public mind” in connection with his defense of members of the order. That prison term ended in December 2011. Before he could be released, judicial authorities consolidated his case with that of the other six defendants and transferred him to Evin Prison.

Security and intelligence forces arrested the six other Majzooban-e Noor site administrators and lawyers between September 3 and 11, 2011, in Tehran and Shiraz. The arrests followed clashes between plainclothes and paramilitary Basij militia and members of the order in the city of Kavar, 30 kilometers south of Shiraz. Accounts on Majzooban-e Noor say that pro-government forces arrived in Kavar on August 27, and began harassing members of the order. On September 1, the reports said, the forces attacked Sufi homes and businesses, which led to clashes, dozens of injuries, and the death of at least one Sufi resident.

Following the clashes, security forces have arrested more than 200 members of the order, Farhad Nouri said. More than 50 remain either in detention or under prosecution, and several dozen face serious national security charges, including for moharebeh, or “enmity against God,” for allegedly carrying arms and taking part in violence against security forces. Under Iran’s penal code, the crime of moharebeh, which can carry the death penalty, is often used against people alleged to have used or threatened violence in a way that threatens public security.

Alireza Roshan and Mostafa Abdi, two other Majzooban-e Noor administrators arrested following the Kavar clashes, are also in Evin Prison. In a separate action, Branch 26 of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court sentenced Roshan to one year in prison on national security charges, upheld on appeal. Abdi has not yet been convicted.

At least five other Nematollahi Gonabadi members are detained in Adel Abad prison allegedly in connection with the Kavar clashes. They are Kasra Nouri, Seyed Ebrahim Bahrami, Mohammad-Ali Sadeghi, Mohammad-Ali Dehghan, and Mohsen Esmaili. In April, a revolutionary court convicted Nouri of various national security crimes in connection with his activities with the website and sentenced him to four years and four months in prison.

Nouri and Saleh Moradi, who was just sentenced to three years in prison and had previously spent 22 months in pre-trial detention before being conditionally released on June 11, initiated a hunger strike in January in solidarity with the group of seven defendants in Evin Prison who were sent to solitary confinement. They ended the hunger strike in April, after the seven were transferred back.

Followers of the Nematollahi Gonabadi order claim at least five million members throughout the country, though no official statistics are available. Since 2005, Iranian security and intelligence forces have increasingly targeted this group, members say.

During a visit to Qom in October 2010, Ayatollah Khamenei spoke of the “need to combat false and misleading beliefs.” High-level Iranian officials, including leaders of the clerical establishment, have expressed concern at what they see as the rising popularity of what they see as “deviant” faiths or beliefs, including the Nematollahi Gonabadi order Baha’is and evangelical Protestant churches, especially among youth.

In 2006, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad empowered the General Cultural Council to carry out policies aimed at confronting “deviant groups,” especially those of a spiritual or religious nature. The General Cultural Council is an arm of the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, an executive agency charged with promulgating regulations in public sector employment and education.

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