Iran: police attack Women’s Day march; crackdown on Sufis

From Human Rights Watch, March 9:

Iranian police and plainclothes agents yesterday charged a peaceful assembly of women’s rights activists in Tehran and beat hundreds of women and men who had gathered to commemorate International Women’s Day, Human Rights Watch said today.

The attack took place shortly after participants in the celebration assembled at Tehran’s Daneshjoo Park at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, March 8.

“The Iranian authorities marked International Women’s Day by attacking hundreds of people who had peacefully assembled to honor women’s rights,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Once again, Iran’s government has signaled that it is ready to use violence to suppress peaceful public assembly of any sort.”

Eyewitnesses told Human Rights Watch that plainclothes agents, anti-riot police and Revolutionary Guards surrounded the park where hundreds of activists gathered.

“This was a completely peaceful gathering with no political overtones or slogans,” one participant told Human Rights Watch. “We just held up signs in solidarity with the international women’s rights movement.”

Within minutes, after agents photographed and videotaped the gathering, the police told the crowd to disperse. In response, the participants staged a sit-in and started to sing the anthem of the women’s rights movement, one participant told Human Rights Watch.

The security forces then dumped cans of garbage on the heads of women who were seated before charging into the group and beating them with batons to compel them to leave the park.

“As we started to run away and seek shelter, they followed us and continued to beat us. I was beaten several times on my arm, below the waist, and on my wrist,” an activist said.

The commander of security forces at the scene, Ghodratollah Mahmoudi, told the Iranian Labor News Agency that “this gathering was held without an official permit. The response by the security forces prevented the gathering to take on a political dimension.”

Among those present at the gathering was Simin Behbahani, a renowned Iranian poet. According to an eyewitness, “Behbahani was beaten with a baton, and when people protested that she is in her 70s and she can barely see, the security officer kicked her several times and continued to hit her with his baton.”

The security forces also took several foreign journalists into custody and confiscated their photographic equipment and video footage before releasing them.

On the previous day, March 7, the Iranian interior ministry summoned several women’s rights activists and warned them to cancel the gathering. The activists responded that the event is an annual celebration by many women’s rights groups and that they were not organizing the event.

The attack on women’s rights activists highlights the Iranian government’s consistent policy of suppressing freedom of association and assembly, Human Rights Watch said.

Since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office in August, security forces have repeatedly resorted to violence to suppress peaceful gatherings. In January, security forces in Tehran attacked and arrested hundreds of striking bus drivers who were protesting working conditions.

In February, security forces in the city of Qom used excessive force and tear gas to detain hundreds of Sufi followers who had gathered in front of their house of worship to prevent its destruction by the authorities.

Here is Radio Free Europe‘s report on the Qom crackdown:

Human rights activists have expressed concern over the arrest on 13 February of some 1,000 Sufi worshippers in the Iranian holy city of Qom. The arrests followed clashes between the police and members of a Sufi group over the closure of a house of worship used by the Sufi Muslims. Observers say the scale and violence of the crackdown on the Sufis is unprecedented in the Islamic Republic. Officials say the Sufis had illegally turned a residential building into a center of worship and had refused to evacuate it. They have also said that some of the dervishes were armed. But representatives of the dervishes deny the charges and say they are being targeted due to an increasing popularity of Sufism.

More from Reuters, March 15:

Officials and a Qom resident said the police had fired teargas to disperse a crowd of dervishes, or mystics, and those who had gathered to support them. They said the dervishes were armed with knives and stones.

Around 200 people were hurt in the clash, one official said…

The governor-general of Qom accused the dervishes of being part of a foreign plot, but he did not explain this.

“We did not aim to confront them at first, but when we felt that … a plot was under way, we took steps,” Abbas Mohtaj was quoted as saying by the Jomhuri-ye Eslami newspaper.

“The arrogant powers are exploiting every opportunity to create insecurity in our country and (the Sufis’) links to foreign countries are evident,” he added…

The Sufis’ mystical path to God through dance and music does not go down well with some of the most senior religious figures in the country.

Ayatollah Hossein Nouri-Hamedani in September called for a clampdown on dervish groups in the holy city of Qom, which he called a “danger to Islam”.

Some said the tensions with dervishes in Qom were due to the increasing popularity of Sufism there.

“Dervishes were becoming popular in Qom and the officials wanted to crackdown on them,” said an employee at one of Qom’s reformist seminaries.

See our last post on Iran.