Relatives of detained Dervishes outside Evin prison in Tehran, January 2018. 

© 2018 Center for Human Rights in Iran

(Beirut) – Since May 2018, revolutionary courts have sentenced at least 208 members of the religious minority to prison terms and other punishments in trials that violate their basic rights, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities detained more than 300 community members in the notorious Fashafuyeh and Qarchack prisons after late February protests that included violent clashes between protesters and security forces in Tehran.

The courts handed down sentences that include prison terms ranging from four months to 26 years, flogging, internal exile, travel bans, and a ban on membership in social and political groups. Flogging as punishment is recognized under international human rights law as a form of torture.

“The unjust trials of over 200 Dervishes is one of the largest crackdowns against a religious minority in Iran in a decade,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities have used the February protests as an excuse to intimidate this vulnerable group and silence another segment of Iranian society demanding basic rights from a repressive security state.”

During January and February, dozens of Dervish community members continuously gathered on Golestan-e Haftom street in the Pasdaran neighborhood in north Tehran to protect the residence of their spiritual leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh, whom they feared intelligence agencies planned to arrest. On February 19 and 20, several media and witness accounts reported that clashes between security forces and some protesters left several dozen Dervish members severely injured and four law enforcement agents dead, including three who were struck by a bus.

During trials that lasted as short as 15 minutes, judges repeatedly insulted the accused and focused their questions on their faith as opposed to any recognizable crime, informed sources told Human Rights Watch. Iranian law restricts the right of detainees charged with national security crimes to access a lawyer during the investigation period. In June, the judiciary released a list of 20 lawyers permitted to represent detained individuals facing national security crimes during investigation in the province of Tehran. Sources familiar with the cases told Human Rights Watch that even after the investigation period, the prosecutor’s office and revolutionary court judges refused to allow Dervishes to be represented by the lawyers they had chosen.

The Iranian judiciary regularly uses vaguely defined national security charges to prosecute those exercising their basic freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly, Human Rights Watch said.

Authorities handed down more than 40 sentences in absentia, after accused Dervishes did not appear in court to protest the trials. The charges and evidence against the accused have not been publicly available. But several verdicts that defendants’ family members published on social media indicate judges used vaguely defined national security charges to prosecute what was largely peaceful activism.

Among those convicted were editors of and contributors to the Majzooban-e Noor website, which publishes news about Gonabadi Dervishes. Their charges included conducting “propaganda against the state,” which violates their free expression rights.

On August 15, the Majzooban-e Noor Twitter account reported that a revolutionary court had sentenced Mostafa Abdi, one of the editors, to 26 years and three months in prison, 148 lashes, and two years of internal exile. The sentence also banned him for two years from traveling outside Iran and prohibited him from membership in political parties and activities connected with the media, including social media.

On August 18, Faezeh Abdipour, the wife of Mohammadi Sharifi, a student and children’s rights activist, tweeted that Judge Abolghasem Salavati at Branch 15 of Tehran’s revolutionary court had sentenced Sharifi to 12 years in prison, 74 lashes, two years of internal exile, a two-year travel ban, and a ban on membership in political parties and social groups, and activities connected with the media, including social media. Since 2009, Salavati has issued hundreds of verdicts against human rights defenders and political activists.

As evidence against Sharifi, Abdipour reported, the court charged him with activities that do not appear to be recognizable criminal offenses, such as: “visiting family of Reza Shahabi, a union activist, on September 28, 2017, and calling for an illegal demonstration in his support in front of the Labor Ministry on December 26, 2017;” “supporting the Dervish minority and others during a speech at student open tribune at Sharif university;” “creating the telegram channel ‘No to urban death’ in support of dervishes;” and “participating in drafting a joint statement of student activists.”

On July 29, the Majzooban-e Noor Twitter account reported that branch 26 of Tehran’s revolutionary court had sentenced Kasra Nouri, an activist, to 7 years and 6 months in prison on numerous flimsy charges, including “assembly and collusion against national security,” 18 months in prison and 74 lashes for “disrupting public order,” and 18 months each for “rebelling against officers on duty” and “propaganda against the state.” The court, which held the trial in absentia, said that Nouri had been a leading figure during the February protests and that his “illegal activities” included “reporting information about the Dervish minority to opposition media,” “writing human rights articles against the state,” and “participating in the January protests.”

The revolutionary court has also sentenced six Dervish women – Nazila Nouri, Avisha Jalaledin, Sima Entesari, Shima Entesari, Sepideh Moradi, Shokoufeh Yadollahi, and Maryam Farsyabi – to five-year prison terms. They are in Qarchak prison.

On June 18, Mohammad Sallas, a member of Dervish community, was executed for allegedly killing three police officers by driving a bus into a crowd of security officers during the February 19 and 20 clashes. He had been convicted on March 18 after a trial that raised serious concerns about its fairness and allegations that the authorities tortured him in detention.

On March 4, police forces informed the family of Mohammad Raji, who was arrested during the protest, that he had died in custody. The authorities have not conducted an impartial investigation into the circumstances of Raji’s death or into the allegations of excessive force by security agents during the February protests, Human Rights Watch said.

The Nematollahi Gonabadi Dervishes 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.

Under international law, everyone has the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, as guaranteed under 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 provide that security forces should apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force. Whenever the lawful use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials should use restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense, and minimize injury.

Torture, as well as cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, is banned at all times, and evidence obtained by torture or other coercion cannot not be submitted as evidence in a trial. The ICCPR also requires the right to a fair criminal trial, including the right to be informed promptly of the nature and cause of the charges; to have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of a defense; to communicate with counsel of one’s choosing; to be present at the trial; and to examine the prosecution’s witnesses.

“The sentencing of more than 200 Dervish community members in violation of their fair trial rights is the latest reminder of the way the Iranian authorities’ repressive security apparatus preys on their own citizens every day,” Whitson said.