Iranian authorities arrested over 300 members of the minority Dervish Muslim community in late February 2018 after police forcibly tried to break up a protest. The events in February stemmed from what appears to be an intensified crackdown on the Dervish minority, including likely ramped-up surveillance of the group’s leader.
The ensuing clashes left dozens of people injured and at least three police officers and one Basij member dead. One arrested protester died in custody in unexplained circumstances. The Iranian authorities should immediately release those held or charge them with a recognizable crime. The authorities should also allow for an independent investigation into possible use of excessive force during the clashes.
“Iranian judicial and security authorities are on a tear, violently repressing protests by groups ranging from people concerned about economic conditions to women tired of compulsory dress laws and now a religious minority group,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Crushing dissent instead of encouraging dialogue is a hallmark of oppression.”
Police disrupted a protest by members of the Nematollahi Gonabadi Dervish religious community on February 19 and the early morning of February 20, leading to the violent clashes. Authorities subsequently arrested at least 300 members of the Gonabadi community, including about 60 women. Many of those detained remain in Evin, Fashafouyeh, and Qarchak prisons in Tehran.
On March 4, authorities informed the family of Mohammad Raji, one of those arrested, that he had died in custody. The authorities have refused to provide any explanation and have threatened reprisals against his family if they speak about it publicly. It is the fifth death in custody in Iran since the beginning of 2018.
Judicial authorities have said that those responsible for the deaths of the security agents are undergoing fast-track prosecutions, raising serious concerns about the lack of due process protections and fair trial standards.
On February 20, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) news website aired a video in which a man, identified later by media as Mohammed Sallas, said he had driven the bus into the police officers out of anger over their actions, but that he had not intended to kill anyone. He was filmed in a hospital bed and appeared severely injured, raising questions about the conditions under which the video was filmed.
On March 1, Hossein Rahimi, the Tehran police chief, said during an interview on the Iran Radio Channel that a person charged with killing the security agents will be executed before Iran’s new year on March 21.
On March 11, Sallas, who is a member of the Dervish community, appeared in court to face charges in the killing of three of the police officers. During his trial, he said that the police forces attacked him during the protests, causing multiple head wounds. The verdict is scheduled to be issued within seven days.
Following the February clashes, several imams during Friday prayers called for decisive action against members of the Gonabadi Dervish community. On February 23, Ayatollah Seyed Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday prayer imam in the religious city of Mashhad, said during the prayers that the Dervishes are a “deviant group” led by the United Kingdom.
The Nematollahi Gonabadis 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, Noor Ali Tabandeh, the spiritual leader of the Nematollahi Gonabadi Dervish faith, published a video stating that he is not allowed to leave his residence in Tehran.
Attacks against police forces are criminal acts that may be prosecuted, but Iranian authorities should not extend criminal responsibility of individuals alleged to have committed criminal acts 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 also 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 of 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 ensure the right to a fair trial for those charged, Human Rights Watch said.