Iran: protest conviction of Sufi activists

Human Rights Watch has called upon Iran’s judiciary to abandon charges and quash the verdicts against 11 members of a Sufi order convicted in what the rights group called unfair trials and informed of their sentences this month. HRW found that evidence suggests 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 documenting rights abuses against members of the order. “The Sufi trials bore all the hallmarks of a classic witch hunt,” said Tamara Alrifai, HRW’s Middle East advocacy director. “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, currently out on bail, 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 confines them to provinces distant from their hometowns. 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 of 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.” 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.” Three of the Tehran defendants 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 Shiraz defendant Farzaneh Nouri and an administrator for the website, told HRW that of the four Shiraz defendants, two did not even contribute to the website, and the 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, 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 Tehran court, calling the court illegitimate and submitting numerous reasons why they chose not to appear or defend themselves. 

The wife of one defendant told HRW 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 officials 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. HRW protests these abuses as violations of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Iran is a party. 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 charge of “insulting the Supreme Leader” apparently relates 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. (Other such open letters appeared on the website in subsequent months.)

“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.”

Six of the defendants were arrested in September 2011, following clashes between the paramilitary Basij militia and Sufi followers in the city of Kavar, 30 kilometers south of Shiraz. Accounts on Majzooban-e Noor say that pro-government forces arrived in Kavar on Aug. 27, and began harassing members of the order. On Sept. 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 arrested more than 200 members of the order. 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,” which can carry the death penalty.

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. (HRW, July 25)

Gonabadi followers have been attacked by the paramilitary forces before, and sentenced to prison, flogging and exile.

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