(Beirut) – The Iranian judiciary should immediately halt the looming execution of a member of the Gonabadi Dervish community, Human Rights Watch said today. Iran should also release all Dervish members arbitrarily detained since February 2018.
The authorities arrested more than 300 members of the Dervish community on February 20 following clashes when the authorities violently repressed a protest in Tehran. The clashes left dozens injured and three police officers and another security force member dead. On March 18, after an unfair trial that lasted three sessions, the authorities sentenced Mohammad Sallas, 46, to death on charges of killing the police officers by driving a bus into a crowd of security officers.
“Iranian authorities repeatedly punish minority communities for protests seeking treatment as equal members of society,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Iran should end its crackdown on its minority groups and immediately halt the execution of Mohammad Sallas and grant him a fair retrial.”
Many of those arrested remain in custody on vaguely defined charges and without access to a lawyer. On May 10, a member of the Gonabadi Dervish community with close knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity told Human Rights Watch that 430 Dervish men remained in custody in Fashafouyeh prison in Tehran. Activists tweeted on May 14 that the authorities had arraigned 11 women among those detained on charges that included disobeying the police and acting against national security.
Sallas’s trial appears to have been seriously unfair, in particular for a trial that resulted in a death sentence. He had no lawyer during the investigation, and Judge Mohammad Shahriari said during the trial that the authorities had completed their investigation within 48 hours.
Sallas said during his trial that the police had severely beaten him, causing head injuries. He said he drove into the police officers out of anger over their actions, but he had not intended to kill anyone.
On April 24, Saeed Ashrafzadeh, Sallas’ lawyer, told the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA) that the Supreme Court had upheld the sentence in less than 24 hours after the court took up the case.
On March 4, the authorities informed the family of Mohammad Raji, one of those arrested, that he had died in custody. The authorities have not investigated his death and had threatened reprisals against his family if they spoke about it publicly.
On April 18, Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi, the Tehran prosecutor, said at a news conference that “350 indictments have been issued with regard to the incidents on Pasdaran Street, and some of the cases have been referred to the Revolutionary Court.”
He said the authorities are charging the detainees with disturbing public order, disregarding police orders, conspiracy, collusion to disrupt the country's national security, and using weapons.
The source with knowledge of the situation said that among those detained are family members, particularly women, to pressure their family members to confess that they used violence during the protests. The source said that members of the police and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Intelligence Unit have been interrogating the detainees.
Several family members have confirmed that the authorities are not giving detainees access to lawyers or permitting regular family visits or phone calls. They also said that several people injured during the February 20 crackdown have not had adequate access to medical treatment. They include Ahmad Barakoohi, Nima Azizi, Mohsen Noroozi, and Mehdi Mahdavi, who have serious eye injuries, and Shokoufeh Yadollahi, who has a head injury, the family members said.
The Nematollahi Gonabadi Dervish community consider themselves followers of Twelver Shia Islam, the official state religion in Iran, but authorities have persecuted them for their religious beliefs in recent years. On March 8, authorities placed Noor Ali Tabandeh, the group’s spiritual leader, under house arrest. The source said that after the February 20 incident, judicial authorities closed down the Haghighat publishing company and the Reza Charity institution, both of which belong to Gonabadi Dervish members.
Attacks on police forces are criminal acts, but Iranian authorities should not extend criminal responsibility to an entire group of protesters, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch opposes the death penalty in all circumstances because it is an inherently irreversible, inhumane punishment.
Under international law, everyone is allowed to participate in lawful and peaceful assemblies, based on the principles embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials require them to avoid the use of force when dispersing assemblies that are unlawful but nonviolent or, if that is not practicable, to restrict such force to the minimum extent necessary.
Article 14 of the ICCPR also requires Iran to ensure the right to a fair trial for anyone brought before the criminal courts. This includes the right “to have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of his defense and to communicate with counsel of his own choosing.” The Iranian authorities should not only charge detainees with a recognizable crime, but they should also ensure the right to a fair trial for those charged, Human Rights Watch said.