May 14, 2019 — Fifteen Gonabadi Dervishes who are political prisoners in Iran have gone on strike inside the prison to object to prison conditions.
The Gonabadi Dervishes are Muslims of the Sufi order who are a religious minority facing persecution in Iran. These prisoners of conscience are being held not with the rest of political prisoners but with dangerous inmates who have committed violent crimes. Keeping political prisoners with violent inmates has been common practice in Iranian prisons and is a form of extra-legal punishment.
The striking Dervishes have also organized a sit-in inside the prison and are demanding to be transferred to a section of the prison reserved instead for political prisoners.
In recent years, Iranian authorities have arrested and sentenced hundreds of Gonabadi dervishes across the country. Charges include “threatening national security,” “disruption of public order” and “agitating the public consciousness”. In some occasions, they have also been convicted of the offense of “enmity against God”. Many of Iranian Gonabadi Dervishes who were arrested in winter 2018 following gatherings outside of their leaders’ residence and support for his safety have been sentenced to heavy prison terms.
The harassment of Iranian minorities has a long history in the Islamic Republic of Iran and Dervishes are no exception.
Who are the Gonabadi Dervishes?
The Nematollahi Gonabadi School is the largest Sufi order in Iran. The number of its members is reportedly around five million. They mostly reside in major urban centers of Tehran, Isfahan and Lorestan provinces. Most of the Gonabadi Dervishes are Shia Muslims but of a Sufi order that makes them a minority within Shiite Islam.
The Gonabadi Dervishes promote spiritual and ethical values such as tolerance, selflessness, and generosity. Being a Dervish is a personal spiritual practice, a method of life and lifestyle. They believe that religion and politics should be separated.
Persecution of Dervishes
The Gonabadi Dervishes have been subject to persecution since the mainstream Shiite theocracy of Islamic Republic came to power in 1979. However, in recent years followers of this group have been under increasing pressure and persecution.
Iranian clerics currently in power do not tolerate other versions or alternative narratives of Islam. The Gonabadi Dervishes have a different interpretation of Islam that the establishment views as a threat.
“They are targeted because they do not tow the official state version of religion and their popularity and growth have alarmed authorities to curtail their activities and imprison many of them.” Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) told Zamaneh.
Seventh Golestan Street and the Aftermath
The latest wave of persecution and suppression of the Dervishes in Iran started in winter 2018.
Dozens of Dervishes gathered outside the residence of their leader, Nour Ali Tabandeh, in Tehran in the “Seventh Golestan Street”. Their objective was to protect their leader, whom they call the Qutb (the Guide), after the reports of a possible arrest of Tabandeh by Iran’s security forces. At the same time, plainclothes and militia security agents were present in the neighborhood. Weeks of tension and violent clashes between Dervishes, security forces and plainclothes Basiji militia, resulted in several deaths and dozens of injuries from both sides, mostly from the Dervishes. In the following days, more than 300 Dervishes were arrested.
In a series of speedy trials after the event, more than 200 Dervishes were convicted. The court announced heavy sentences that included one case of the death penalty and prison terms ranging from four months to 26 years. Some were also sentenced to corporal punishments like flogging and domestic exile.
“Currently five female Dervish and 120 men are serving these harsh sentences in different prisons in Tehran province. Although they have been charged with “threatening national security” and “disruption of public order” which are considered national security and political charges, they are not being held with political prisoners”. Alireza Roushan, the Dervish rights activist told Zamaneh: “Their trials were unfair and each lasted as little as 15 minutes to half an hour,” “According to Majzooban Noor, a Dervish-operated website that posts articles pertaining to their cause, the detainees were initially told to choose their counsel from a state-approved list of attorneys (an unknown number were later allowed to choose their own lawyers).
Arguing that they were denied a fair trial, many chose not to appear in their court sessions as a form of collective protest” executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran told Zamaneh “It is unwise to request an appeal from an unjust regime that mistreats the people,” the Dervishes wrote in an open letter published in December 2018. “The Islamic Republic expected us to appear on the defendants’ stand … and bow to the judge’s nonsense dictated by the security authorities.”
The Gonabadi Qutb and his Significance
The leader of the Gonabadi Order is called Qutb (the Guide) and is appointed through hereditary succession. The current Qutb is Nour Ali Tabandeh with a title of “Majzoub Ali Shah”. He is 91 years old and has studied law in Paris during the 1950s. In the early years after the Islamic revolution of 1979, he defended several political prisoners as an attorney.
“Since Feb 20, 2018, he has been under house arrest without trial. He has been hospitalized “several times” during this time. From the very first day, security guards have been stationed outside his home with CCTV cameras and control his home’s entrance to 7th Golestan Street.” Hadi Ghaemi told Zamaneh.
“The Seventh Golestan event had one objective: the house arrest of Dr. Tabandeh, the spiritual leader of the Gonabadi Dervishes. The Iranian security forces with the support of fundamentalists’ clerics of Qom wanted to eliminate the Dervishes in Iran. Dervishes were united and Dr.Tabandeh was the main reason of this union.” Alireza Roushan said.
According to this Dervish activist, Dervish Qutb is under house arrest. Media organizations based in Iran are not allowed to announce the news of the house arrest or even to interview the leader of the Gonabadi Dervishes.