On December 30, security forces arrested five Gonabadi dervishes who had gone to Dey Hospital to visit Hamid Reza Nouri, an administrator of the the website Majzooban-e Noor, who was a patient at the hospital at the time. One of the dervishes, Zafar Moghimi, was released in the evening but on December 31, four of them — Kasra Nouri, Mohammad Sharifi Moghadam, Mohammad Reza Darvishi and Faezeh Abdipour — went on hunger strike after they were transferred to Ward 209 of Evin Prison, a ward under the control of the Intelligence Ministry.

“The arrest of these five Gonabadi dervishes was accompanied by air bullets, tasers, as well as acts of violence on the ground floor of the hospital,” the website reported. So far no reason had been given for the arrests, but this is not the first time that the Islamic Republic has targeted Gonabadi dervishes, using harassment, intimidation and arrests.

The Gonabadi Order in Iran is one of the three main branches of the Nematollahi Sufi Order and has a vast following across the country. Gonabadi dervishes follow the teachings of Noor Ali Tabandeh, who has been under house arrest and is banned from traveling.

The Sufis and Islamic mystic orders have been under varying levels of pressure since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. “Sufism — or mysticism — is an Islamic doctrine,” writes Muhammad Jawad Adib, “an ascetic way of life rooted in sharia, which aims to purify the soul and abandon earthly cares in hopes of getting closer to God and totalizing existence. Religions usually have an inner and outer aspect and often these two aspects contradict one another. Political Islam in Iran, headed by the clerics, is a clear example of exoteric Islam that is in opposition to the mystical tendencies inspired by spiritual analysis of sharia. Sufis’ lack of interest in exoteric Islam and religious rules has always been a point of conflict between the Sufis and the clerics.”

The harassment of the dervishes took a turn for the worse in September 2011, when radical Shia Muslim seminary students attacked dervishes in the city of Kavar in Fars province at a gathering place where Gonabadi dervishes hold religious ceremonies. They killed one dervish, Vahid Banaei, and injured three others. The Special Clergy Court summoned those responsible, but then Intelligence Ministry agents arrested six of the victims of the attack. They took the dervishes to the ministry’s detention center in the provincial capital city of Shiraz, where they interrogated them and later transferred them to the city’s Adel Abad Prison.

In April 2015, the Revolutionary Court in Shiraz sentenced the Sufis to long periods in exile on charges of “waging war against the state” because of their membership to “a deviant sect.” One of those exiled was Mohammad Ali Shamshirzan, who has now been given a life sentence. At the time, he was sent to the southern port city of Bandar Abbas.

Arresting the Witness

Kasra Nouri, one of those arrested, is an administrator of the website Majzooban Noor and a Master's Degree student in Human Rights. On Saturday, December 30, he spoke to IranWire about what he had witnessed at Tehran university during the recent protests. He regularly tweets about civil rights and the rights of defendants, and his last tweet before being arrested was about the recent protest rallies. “According to Article 27 of the constitution and Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which the Iranian government has signed and must observe, today’s gatherings are not illegal!”

Article 27 of the Islamic Republic’s constitution declares:  “Unarmed assemblies and marches may be freely organized, provided that no violation of the foundations of Islam is involved.” And Article 21 of the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states: “The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order, the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.”

A few days earlier, on December 24, plainclothes agents also arrested Kasra Nouri near Tehran University after a protest rally staged by retirees about their pensions. He was under arrest for a few hours and later tweeted a picture of the van in which he was detained and a short account of what had happened. “I was returning from the university when they arrested me at Revolution Square. They repeatedly attempted to confiscate my mobile. I would not allow it and they beat me.”

Every Conceivable Charge

Nouri has a history of problems with the authorities. He was first arrested on January 11, 2012 after Intelligence Ministry agents in plainclothes raided his home in Shiraz and took him to an unknown location without a warrant. He was detained for a month and a half, 30 days of which were spent in solitary confinement at the Intelligence Office, known as Number 100.

He was released on bail but, just two weeks later, on March 15, 2012, he was re-arrested after he spoke to foreign news outlets about the mistreatment of Sufis, including Radio Farda, the Persian service of Radio Free Europe. He was accused of “propaganda against the regime,” “activities against national security”, “revealing state secrets through interviews,” “membership to the deviant group Majzooban,” “insulting the Supreme Leader” and “spreading lies.”

Nouri’s trial was held at Branch 3 of Shiraz’s Revolutionary Court presided over by Judge Rashidi, who sentenced him to four years and four months in prison and gave him a year’s suspended sentence. The appeals court upheld the verdict and he was incarcerated at Adel Abad Prison in Shiraz. During his incarceration he went on hunger strike three times to protest against the plight of dervishes held in solitary confinement.

At one point, he refused to eat for 90 days, during which he was beaten and pressured to end the strike. He refused, stating he would not eat until those in solitary confinement were returned to the general ward. On the 70th day of his hunger strike, he fell unconscious and was taken to the prison’s hospital.

His hunger strike led to protests by supporters of human rights in Iran and abroad. When Nouri was on hunger strike in March 2013, the Nobel Laureate Shirin Ebadi wrote an open letter to Ahmed Shaheed, the UN special rapporteur on human rights in Iran at the time, warning that Kasra Nouri and Salahedin Moradi, another imprisoned dervish, were in a “critical” condition.

Nouri went on a second hunger strike on March 1, 2014 to protest against the neglect shown towards three ill dervishes held in Evin’s Cell Block 350. When news emerged about his hunger strike, and strikes by other prisoners, more than 2,000 Gonabadi dervishes gathered in front of Tehran’s prosecutor’s office to show their solidarity. Authorities responded by transferring the three ill dervishes to a general hospital. Nouri ended the hunger strike 15 days later.

But now Kasra Nouri and three of his fellow student activists are in prison again, and have gone on hunger strike again.

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