Only four months after his Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, the revolution's leader Ayatollah Rouhollah Khomeini took the first step to set up a "special clerical court" to deal with those whom he called "corrupt clerics."
He said the court was not there to defend the clerics. Instead, it is there "to defend Islam."
Corrupt clerics were those who did not submit to the newly established political system's ideology. There have always been dissenters among the ranks of Iranian clerics during the past 40 years, but it was hard to show any deviation from the regime’s strict line as the response was expected to be harsh, and it often was.
A cleric had to be the mouthpiece of the established system, obey the Supreme Leader and be demonstrably anti-secular and anti-Western.
Khomeini often talked about Ulam-i Su (bad scholars) in Iran and abroad. Even some eulogists, who are not exactly clerics were killed or treated otherwise violently during the first year after the revolution.
Fear of violent punishment for disobedience, led to a secrecy that concealed dissidence and independent thought in the clerical ranks, which otherwise operates based on blind obedience. The fear, also explains why there is no clear picture of what many clerics really think. On the other hand, not all those who are punished are dissidents. Some are simply black sheep that break traditional rules and harm the image of the clergy.
Although the government that came to power after the 1979 revolution was an Islamic Republic ruled by clerics, some clergies who were not happy with the regime change, came under attack by the new leaders because of their links to the previous regime.
In March 1980, a top Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Tabatabai, complained at a meeting with Khomeini that "incompetent judges have disrobed innocent pious clerics, harming Islam in your name and in the name of Islam."
The Special Clerical Court was established in 1990. A year after Khomeini's death. Before that tribunals formed of three clerics and two local elders tried clerics linked to the Shah's secret police, SAVAK, Persian acronym that stood for the state intelligence and security organization.
The law that led to the establishment of the court stipulated, among other things, that "Those who are not qualified to wear the clerical robe, shall be condemned to be disrobed."
Being disrobed, means no longer being entitled to wear the long Qaba, another long cloak on top of it called Aba, and a turban that covers the head. Some clerics believe that was the way the prophet used to dress up.
Here is a list of some of the clerics disrobed under the Islamic Republic as the punishment has been frequently used to discredit and humiliate critics.
Seyed Abdolreza Hejazi - He was one of the most renowned preachers in Tehran in the 1970s. At the time of the revolution he was a close aide of dissident cleric Ayatollah Kazem Shariatmadari. Shortly after the revolution he was accused of being an accomplice in a coup plot against the Islamic Republic. Hejazi was disrobed and executed in 1983. Ironically, the Shah's secret police believed he was a revolutionary who supported Khomeini.
Ali Akbar Hekamizadeh – He was the author of the book "Millennial Secrets", a discourse against religious superstition. In the book he asked questions that were later answered by Ayatollah Khmoeini in his book "The Islamic Government." After the Islamic revolution, Islamic Republic authorities disrobed him under pressure from fanatical clerics. He died in 1987.
Hassan Yusefi Eshkevari – Reformist cleric and former MP, Eshkevari was arrested in 2000 after taking part in a conference about human rights in Berlin, along with other participants in the event. He was tried at the Special Court for Clerics in Tehran and subsequently disrobed before going to jail for five years after his death sentence was commuted under international pressure. Eshkevari lives in Germany.
Ali Afsahi – A young cleric and the editor of a publication about cinema and sports, Afsahi was disrobed forever and jailed for four months on charges of "insulting saints and clerics" following a speech at the Bushehr Film Center in the year 2000.
Seyed Mohammad Mousa Mirshahvalad – A clerical student in Mashad, Mirshahvalad was sentenced to 20 months in jail, 30 lashes and being disrobed for two years for "insulting state officials and propagating against the state." He was pardoned in 2003.
Hadi Qabel – A reformist cleric, Qabel was arrested in 2007 on charges of "propagating against the regime." According to his lawyer, the Special Clerical Court disrobed him and sentenced him to 40 months in prison, and a 500,000 tuman fine. He was disrobed on charges of "undermining clerics' prestige." Qabel was pardoned in 2009 after serving 22 months in jail.
Seyed Hossein Kazemeini Boroujerdi – He is a cleric who has openly opposed the intervention of religion in politics, and the rule of jurisconsult (Velayat-e Faqih), in other words, the rule of Supreme Leader, currently Khamenei. A court in September 2007 tried him for "fighting God" and "propagating against the regime," and sentenced him to 10 years jail after disrobing him.
Majid Jafari Tabar – was sentenced to death in 2014 for "financial corruption, having devoted followers, and claiming to be in contact with the hidden Imam." After his conviction, his pictures were published showing him next to Khamenei's son and President Hassan Rouhani.
Ahmad Montazeri – He was sentenced first to 21 and then to 6 years in jail in 2016 for publishing a tape in which his father Ayatollah Hossein Ali Montazeri disclosed secrets about mass murders in Iranian jails in the 1980s. He was also sentenced to being disrobed, but his sentence was later suspended for three years.
Mohammad Reza Nekounam - A seminary teacher, Nekounam was first arrested in 2014 for insulting high-ranking hardline cleric Nasser Makarem Shirazi. In 2016 he was jailed again for writing an article in a newspaper. In 2017, the Special Clerical Court disrobed him before sentencing him to lashes and five years in jail.
Hassan Aghamiri – Social media activist nicknamed as the Telegram Cleric, Aghamiri has over one million followers on Telegram and more than 200,000 followers on Instagram. He is extremely popular for his critical speeches. A court in Tehran disrobed him in January 2019 on charges of "undermining clerics' prestige and insulting sanctities" and sentenced him to two years in jail but suspended his jail sentence for two years.