On Monday, February 19, violent clashes between protesting Gonabadi dervishes and police resulted in in the deaths of five people.
Tehran police said three policemen and two members of the paramilitary Basij had been killed in the clashes, and that dozens of dervishes had been injured. On the morning of Tuesday, February 20, police spokesman Saeed Montazer Almahdi announced that 300 dervishes had been arrested.
The clashes started when a group of Gonabadi dervishes gathered outside Police Station 102 in Tehran to protest against the arrest of Nematollah Riahi, a fellow dervish, on Sunday, February 18.
The protest started out peacefully, with the dervishes chanting slogans. But the mood soon changed when police intervened, and allegedly began to violently assault protesters. Photographs and videos of the clash posted on social media show police using tear gas and shooting in the air to disperse the demonstrators, some of who were carrying sticks or clubs.
Majzooban Noor, a website run by the Gonabadi Sufis, confirmed that the dervishes had gathered outside the police station in protest against the arrest of Riahi. It denied reports that any Sufis were involved in attacking the police. Majzooban Noor tweeted that “plainclothes officers, supported by anti-riot vehicles and using teargas savagely attacked the dervishes who were present.” It also reported that plainclothes agents and the Basijis had tried to raid the home of their guru or grandmaster, Noor Ali Tabandeh, but were not successful in gaining access to the house.
From the evening of February 19, websites associated with the regime and others on social networks published photographs, news and reports critical of Gonabadi dervishes, accusing them of violence and breaking the law.
Majzooban Noor’s Telegram channel reported on February 19 that several dervishes had been shot, and three of them remain in a critical condition. The channel also confirmed that protesting Sufis were arrested, and on Twitter, Majzooban Noor put the number of arrested at “more than 200.” It also reported that several female dervishes had been arrested and taken to Evin Prison. It said the situation for many other male dervishes arrested remained unknown.
The protests were still ongoing on the morning of Tuesday, February 20.
Bus as Alleged Murder Weapon
Videos posted online show a white bus zigzagging towards policemen in an alleyway and trying to run them over. One report named a dervish, Yavar Mohammad Salas, as the driver of the bus.
Speaking to Fars News Agency on February 19, Saeed Montazer Almahdi, a spokesman for the police, confirmed the deaths of the three policemen [Persian link], and the report that the perpetrators “martyred” the policemen by running into them with a bus. “The murderers were apprehended in no time at all, and the police have the control of the situation,” he said.
Quoting the National Police, on the morning of Tuesday, February 20, the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) also carried the report that two members of the paramilitary Basij had been killed in the clashes. According to IRNA, one of them was run over by a car and the other one was stabbed to death. IRNA also published photographs of the policemen who had lost their lives.
A BBC report said that “five security personnel” had died, and @bbcpersian posted grainy video footage of the swerving bus.
According to reports from Tehran, security forces have been stationed in the streets leading to the home of Noor Ali Tabandeh since the night of February 19. Gonabadi dervishes tweeted that telephone communication with their guru had been disrupted.
This is the second clash between police and Gonabadi Sufis in the last two weeks. On Sunday, February 4, there was an hours-long standoff between uniformed and plainclothes officers and hundreds of dervishes. The dervishes had gathered outside the house of Noor Ali Tabandeh to shield him from arrest. Eventually, Brigadier-General Masoud Mosaddegh arrived at the scene, promised to remove security agents from the area, and asked the Sufis to disperse [Persian link].
A History of Discrimination
The ruling mullahs and their military and police forces have always worried that the moral and religious authority of some group or other might gain power and influence, so they use the most violent and complicated methods to restrain groups that they see as their rivals or potential rivals. Their treatment of Sufis, other mystic groups, the Baha’is and the Sunnis are clear examples of this approach. And the attack on the Sufis is not new: The last significant unrest was in late February and March 2014, when prison officials refused to transfer Afshin Karampour, an imprisoned Gonabadi dervish who had been suffering from severe pains in his kidneys and spinal cord, to the hospital — a move that should have been routine for most incarcerated prisoners. And this week the confrontation started with the arrest of Nematollah Riahi, another ailing Gonabadi dervish and an old man.
The recently-arrested Sufi Nematollah Riahi, whose incarceration sparked the protests, is from Shahr-e Kord in central Iran. He had travelled to Tehran to participate in the protests to protect Noor Ali Tabandeh earlier in February. Sources close to the Gonabadi Sufis say that so far their efforts to glean details about Riahi’s situation have been unsuccessful. According to the Majzooban Noor website, “the police station says that this dervish has been handed over to Tehran’s Security Police, but officials from the Security Police deny that he has been arrested.”
Riahi’s daughter says her father has a heart condition that requires the support of a battery-powered device, and any kind of pressure or stress can have irreversible consequences.
More on Iran's Gonabadi Sufis:
Who are the Gonabadi Sufis?, February 2017
Iran Cracks Down on Sufis, July 2017
Campaign for the Rights of Gonabadi Sufis Gains Support, October 2017
Supreme Court Upholds Sentences for Gonabadi Dervishes, February 2015