Four Deaths in State Custody in Iran in Two Months Heighten Grave Concerns for Detainees

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Gonabadi Dervish Detainee Died From “Blows to the Head,” Says Daughter

March 6, 2018—The recent death of a devotee of Iran’s largest Sufi order in Tehran marks the fourth known death of a detainee in state custody in Iran in two months.

“It’s outrageous that detainees in Iran keep dying in state custody,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI).

“These people are arrested, they die, and nobody knows what happened,” added Ghaemi. “This lack of transparency is unacceptable.”

The daughter of Mohammad Raji, the Gonabadi Dervish who died in police custody in Tehran sometime between February 20 and March 4, is planning to sue the authorities, she told CHRI.

“We got a lawyer to follow up on the case because my father’s death was caused by blows they struck to his head,” said Tayebeh Raji. “We need to shed light on this crime. We are demanding an autopsy.”

“I thought they would take him to a hospital for treatment and take care of him—at least out of respect for the years he spent defending this country [in the Iran-Iraq war],” she added.

She continued: “But on the night of March 3, we were contacted by the police and asked to bring his photo and papers to identify him. Today [March 5], [my father’s] son-in-law went there and he said my father had gone into a coma and died from injuries caused by blows to the head.”

Iranian officials have claimed that Raji was “injured” during protests in Tehran in February 2018 but have refused to take responsibility for his death. It remains unclear exactly when Raji died and whether he died at a detention center or at a hospital—regardless, his family says he died in state custody.

On March 5, the Fars News Agency, which maintains close relations with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), reported that “An informed source denied reports about the death of a dervish in Evin Prison or in police detention and said: We have not had any deaths among members of this cult during investigations. He added: This person was injured on the night of clashes on Pasdaran St. and was taken to Baqiyatallah Hospital but he died.”

On March 4 the Tehran prosecutor denied that Raji died during the “investigation process” or while under interrogation but did not address the fact that Raji was in state custody at the time.

“How many more people will die before Iranian officials listen to calls from inside and outside the country for an independent investigation into these deaths?” asked Ghaemi.

Family Denied Access to Raji Until After His Death

Tayebeh Raji was detained the same day as her father on February 20 but released late that evening. The authorities refused to give the family news about her father until after he had died, she told CHRI.

“My father was arrested on the morning of February 20, [2018],” she said. “I was there when it happened. He was taken into custody ahead of me. I saw that my father was injured; he was on the ground [on 7th Golestan St.] with a bloody face. But I saw his hand move and realized he was alive.”

She continued: “I was detained at 4:30 in the morning [February 20] and taken to the Vozara Detention Center and they released me at 12 midnight. We had no information about what had happened to our father and he didn’t contact us. Anywhere we went, no one had any information.”

Tayebeh Raji also told CHRI that she has no information about her brother, Mohammad Ali Raji, who was also detained on February 20.

Mohammad Raji was one of more than 300 members of Iran’s Sufi Gonabadi Order who were reportedly arrested after clashes between the religious order and the police became violent in Tehran on February 19.

Three policemen and two members of the Basij volunteer militia were killed after a bus allegedly driven by a dervish ran over them. Friday prayer leaders have since referred to the dervishes as terrorists and spies in their sermons.

“…[T]hey caused these riots to cover up the enemy’s espionage operations against our missile sites under the guise of environmental protection,” said ultra-conservative Ayatollah Ahmad Alamolhoda, the Friday prayer leader of Mashhad, on February 23. “These [dervishes] must be uprooted for harming people’s security.”

The Gonabadi Dervishes’ interpretation of Islam differs from that of Iran’s ruling Muslim Shia establishment. The Islamic Republic views any alternative belief system, especially those seeking converts, as a threat to the prevailing Shia establishment and has imprisoned members of the Sufi order and expelled them from universities for their faith.

According to Mazjooban, a website devoted to news about Iran’s Gonabadi Dervishes, the clashes began when police attacked a demonstration by the dervishes on February 19, 2018, outside a police station as the dervishes were demanding the release of a fellow devotee.

The website also reported that Mohammad Raji was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88) during which he commanded several battalions of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Kurdistan Province. In 2004, he left the IRGC and became a farmer in Mazraehabad, a village near the city of Aligoudarz, Lorestan Province, according to the report.

Farhad Nouri, a gonabadi dervish actvist, told CHRI on February 23 that approximately 170 followers of the group had been hospitalized at the time because of injuries caused by beatings by the police and plainclothes agents.

The recent multiple deaths of detainees under highly suspicious circumstances have raised concerns regarding fatal ill-treatment in Iranian prisons, particularly after swift official statements that the detainees committed “suicide” and the refusal of authorities to allow any independent investigations.

Iranian officials claimed that the deaths of Sina Ghanbari in Evin Prison on January 7, 2018, and Vahid Heydari at a detention center in the city of Arak that same month were suicides.

Kavous Seyed-Emami, a prominent Iranian academic and environmentalist who had Canadian citizenship, also died in Evin Prison allegedly by suicide on February 9, 2018. Calls by his family and UN human rights experts for an independent investigation have gone unheeded in Iran.

“Friday prayer leaders are using the clashes with the dervishes in February to paint the entire religion as violent, which can only inflame tensions and lead to more abuses,” said Ghaemi.

“Now more than ever, influential voices in Iran should be calling for the protection of the dervishes and all detainees instead of giving security forces a carte blanche to use excessive force against detainees with impunity,” added Ghaemi.

*This article was revised on March 7 to reflect that Farhad Nouri is a Gonabadi rights activist, not a spokesman for the dervishes.

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