One year ago, the quiet, upper-class Tehran neighborhood of Golestan Haftom became a war zone.
In late January 2018, bloody clashes broke out between dervishes of the Gonabadi Sufi order, a beleaguered religious minority in Iran, and the security forces of the Islamic Republic.
When the carnage ended three weeks later, an untold number of dervishes were dead, as were three members of the police and Baseej (Basij) (paramilitary regime supporters). 156 dervishes are now serving long prison terms. Some were given lashes. Their families say they were sentenced in minutes-long “trials” that more closely resembled a medieval inquisition than a judicial process. Others who avoided arrest have been banned from leaving the country, participating in political activities, and speaking to the media.
Nevertheless, for the first time since the tragic events, dervishes who were present at Golestan Haftom are speaking out from behind bars. In an audio documentary produced by Radio Farda’s Mahtab Vahidi-Rad, several dervishes told their version of events and described harsh prison conditions.
It all began in late January last year, when plainclothesmen and police began erecting a security checkpoint on the street home to the spiritual leader of the Gonabadi dervishes. When word of the checkpoint spread, hundreds of dervishes from across Iran gathered outside the residence of their leader, the 92-year-old Noor Ali Tabandeh, demanding the barrier be removed.
Rumors began to spread of Tabandeh’s imminent arrest. Tensions grew and violent clashes between security forces and dervishes ensued. Images circulated on social media showing dervishes, including women and children, badly bloodied and injured.
As the largest of Iran’s Sufi orders, Gonabadi Dervishes, numbering between two and five million, are viewed as a threat to the Islamic Republic’s ruling establishment because their interpretation of Islam differs from the officially sanctioned version.
At the height of the violence, Tabandeh called on his followers to exercise self-restraint, stay calm, and keep away from his residence. In a March 6 video Tabandeh assured his followers that he was well, but under house arrest.
Official news agency IRNA reported February 20, 2018 that police had branded the demonstrators as “hooligans and rebels” and characterized the police’s response as “effective and intelligent,” saying they had effectively “nipped in the bud” calls for further protests.
“We could have hit the residence with a rocket-propelled grenade and leveled it to the ground, but we acted with intelligence and authority,” Tehran Police Chief and Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General Hasan Rahimi proudly told state-run TV. He went on to declare that his forces had cleaned up the street of “thugs” and “rioters.”
Saeid Doorandish, Ahmad Irankhah, Saeed Soltanpour, and Reza Yavari Motlaq, currently held in custody, are the four dervishes who spoke to Radio Farda at great personal risk via audio messages sent through intermediaries.
A female dervish, Elham Ahmadi, who recently described Qarchak women's prison south of Tehran as "torture chamber,” also spoke about the days of clashes and later her imprisonment.
"Long before attempts to erect a checkpoint in Golestan Haftom, the security forces and intelligence agents stormed a hospital in Tehran and detained four dervishes without a warrant. Furthermore, days before the clashes, (dervishes) Hameed Labbaf and Ne'mat Reyahi were also detained,” said Doorandish, who is currently serving a seven-year sentence at Tehran’s GTP Prison.
Soltanpour, who has been sentenced to 74 lashes and is serving a seven year sentence, insists that dervishes merely gathered to defend their spiritual leader.
"In a healthy society where the law is respected, one expects responsible reactions from the authorities. One could not expect irresponsible silence, brutal and medieval, even prehistoric beatings of the dervishes," Irankhah said, adding, "My son, Mohammad Parsa, was with me in front of Dr, Tabandeh's residence. The security forces supported by Basijees and plainclothesmen even showed no mercy to my fifteen-year-old son. He was brutally beaten by batons and sticks."
Motlaq was sentenced to 74 lashes and is serving a nine-year term for “action against national security.”
"Two hours into the dervishes’ peaceful protest sit-in," Motlaq remembers, "all of a sudden, the forces of the 'Special Guards Unit' stormed the assembly and fired into the panicked crowd injuring many of them, including children. Dervishes were surrounded in Golestan Haftom, and the security forces barraged them with tear gas, while Basijees showered them with insults. Furthermore, Basijees and other members of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps climbed to the rooftops of the neighboring buildings and threw stones and concrete blocks at the Sufis and their families.”
Motlaq says security forces used water cannons, tear gas, and blank bullets.
The Chief Police Commander of the Islamic Republic, IRGC Brigadier General Hossein Ashtari, accused dervishes of beating his forces, and dismissed their protest assembly as "great sedition and riot.”
Moreover, Ashtari maintained that one of the dervishes is responsible for running a bus over his forces, killing three. Mohammad Reza Salas was officially charged for murder and was sentenced to death on March 15.
The 51-year-old Salas insisted he had evidence that at the time when the incident happened he was already in jail and could not have been at the wheel of the bus.
Salas' attorney, Zainab Taheri also stressed on her client's innocence and London based Amnesty International said, “The execution of Salas amounts to killing justice.”
“The beating of dervishes continued even on the buses taking them to the police stations or detention centers," Irankhah remembers, adding, "I will never forget that even at the police station we were showered with insults and beaten.”
“We were slapped, kicked, scorned, and humiliated in an inhumane way,” Doorandish said.
According to Irankhah, some of the dervishes were so badly beaten that they were taken to hospitals.
Dervishes also report horrible prison conditions. They complain they are denied medical attention, clean drinking water, and sufficient food, and say the facilities are unhygienic.
"We are witnessing a human catastrophe here,” said Doorandish.“There are only five restrooms for 500 inmates. The prisoners only have access to medicine and physicians when they are at the verge of death.”
Qarchak Prison is currently where the female dervishes are held. Ms. Ahmadi describes Qarchak as a "torture chamber.”
The prison's clinic, Ms. Ahmadi says, “has no night shift physician. Whoever goes there is given a tablet and bottle of syrup, that's all.” Even if you are forced to visit the clinic several times, Ahmadi says, “The doctor and nurse bombard you with insults. [the condition is so terrible that] this morning, an inmate had a heart attack and died. The lady was rejected by the clinic, and later in the morning, her dead body was found and taken away."
Ahmadi also alleges inmates at Qarchak are subjected to forced labor.
“If we ask to go outside for fresh air or to have a phone call with our loved ones, the guards force us to first root weeds out of the ground in the courtyard with our bear hands,” she said.
The mistreatment of dervishes in Iranian prisons has repeatedly been condemned by the U.S. government as well as by international human rights organizations, including Amnesty International, Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, and Human Rights Watch.