"Compulsory residence", or so they claim, is not synonymous with "exile". Nor are the provinces designated for this type of residence to be described as “exile colonies”.
“All of Iran is my home,” or so they claim. But on closer inspection of the documents, it is abundantly clear that home is not all of Iran, but a set of specific zones in which the leaders of the Islamic Republic are able to live, and another list of places that can, in fact, from a socio-political perspective be called exile colonies.
The people living in the latter have been living in deprivation and poverty since the time of the last Shah of Iran, and hampered by an umbrella-like security apparatus. They are sentenced to a lifetime of want by government decree: be it by the hand of a king or a cleric.
In this report, IranWire interviews several Iranian citizens who have been sent to Sistan and Baluchestan province for compulsory residence by court order. Video footage of these areas also indicates they remain unchanged since the time of Ayatollah Ali Khameini’s exile in 1978.
This week Gholamhossein Esmaili, the spokesperson for the judiciary of the Islamic Republic, was forced to publicly reject the description of a number of Iranian cities as exile colonies, insisting: "All of Iran is my home."
Esmaili claimed the issue was being conflated with “a ban on living in a certain city or place” which some Iranian citizens can be subjected to under the new Law on Commuting the Prison Sentence, which was approved in June 2020.
The new law stipulates: "The court can sentence a person who has been sentenced to lash, qisas [punishment analogous to the crime], or tazir [punishment at the judge’s discretion]… to one or more of the additional punishments, commensurate with the crime and its characteristics.”
The law does not state that any cities in Iran are recognized as exile colonies – or that there exists a list of cities that the judiciary identifies as areas to which convicts should not be sent. But this point has been made repeatedly in judicial regulations in the past.
In an interview with IranWire, lawyer Mousa Barzin Khalifelou explaine that since the Shah's rule, these areas have been effectively designated “exile colonies” according to the regulations. According to this jurist, whether we read these individual rulings as cases of forced residence or exile, they are in practice the same thing.
In June 2019, Iran’s judiciary head Ebrahim Raeesi signed a by-law on “the execution of Islamic punishments, deprivation of life, amputation, qisas and injury, diyya [financial compensation paid to the victim], lashes, deportation, compulsory residence, and prohibition of residence in a certain places or neighborhoods”.
Article 135 specifically addresses compulsory residence. The manner of enforcing the ban on convicts’ living in a certain place in Iran is, it seems, exactly the same as it was in 2014. The new ruling also states: "The list of neighborhoods that are not suitable for forced residence, exile, and deportation, in terms of political, security, social, etc. conditions, is prepared by the Ministries of Justice, Interior and intelligence and, after the approval of the Supreme National Security Council, is reported to the judiciary to be communicated to the judicial authorities."
Article 135 of the 2014 bylaw states the issue of compulsory residence has been “addressed”. Defendants are sent to various locations based on a state-sanctioned list that is updated from time to time.
Where Can’t Convicts be Sent?
In October 2012, ISNA news agency discussed a report about Article 19 of the Islamic Penal Code, which relates to exile. The document cited in this report was a 1999 parliamentary resolution which explicitly states that certain areas were not suitable for compulsory residence. These included Maragheh in East Azerbaijan province, Lamerd in Fars province, Divandareh, Saqez, Bijar, Marivan, Baneh, Kamyaran, Qorveh, and Sanandaj in Kurdistan province, the Rudbar district of Kahnuj county in Kerman province, Tabas in Yazd Province, and Khodabandeh in Zanjan province.
The resolution mentioned in ISNA's report, which was approved by the Ministry of Justice and the Security Council, states that given the changing political, social and economic situations in the listed cities, the list would be revised after 10 years.
Compulsory residence document
The forced relocation of convicts predates the Islamic Republic, with various laws on compulsory residence enacted since the Constitutionalist Movement. Article 14 of the General Penal Code, which was passed by the fifth Iranian parliament, stated: "Those sentenced to exile shall be sent to a place designated by a court and kept under surveillance."
From that time on, Iran’s rulers have used this legislation to exile critics and opponents. The areas they have been sent to are both remote and deprived, with Sistan and Baluchestan province at the top of the list under the Shah. The main cities of this province, including Iranshahr, Saravan, Chabahar, Khash, and Zabol, were miles away from the center. They were specifically identified as locations of exile by the provincial Social Security Committee and provided to SAVAK, the Shah's secret police.
Ali Khamenei’s Spell in Exile
One of the most high-profile citizens subjected to exile during the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was none other than Ali Khamenei, the current leader of the Islamic Republic, who was sent to Iranshahr in the late 1970s.
Advertised on the website of the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic is a documentary entitled The Hope of Tired Souls, which covers the period of Ali Khamenei's exile to Iranshahr.
In the introduction, the voiceover describes Ali Khamenei as a “saviour” of a “forgotten people”. A recording of Khamenei plays in which the Supreme Leader-in-waiting says: "As a seminary student, it was very difficult for me to communicate. Everyone feels homesick while away from home and friends. But I did not feel homesick in 1978 or 1979."
Pictures of the area in question from the period, however, show children standing side by side in abject poverty, tents pitched in the middle of deserts, and roads that have fallen into ruin. When compared to photos provided to IranWire of the exile colonies in Sistan and Baluchestan today, it’s apparent that nothing has changed. The streets are still in disarray and the tents are still there. New children have replaced the previous ones.
Exiled Iranians Speak Out
Convicts in the various cities of Sistan and Baluchestan province, who IranWire has chosen not to name for their own safety, told their stories of “compulsory residence” in the area.
One said: “The government itself deliberately deprives these areas, whose inhabitants are being conspired against by the totalitarian government of the Islamic Republic.
“I can categorically state that this deprivation is intentional. There are people here, in areas like Zahak and on the outskirts of Zabol who live in black tents in the desert and are deprived of basic facilities such as electricity, gas, water, sanitation, and schooling. The economic and health conditions of these people are far from what is seen in the big cities of Iran."
According to the law, one of the factors that leads to certain cities being designated appropriate for “compulsory residence” is, according to the law, the "political conditions". But what does this mean?
A Gonabadi dervish exiled to Sistan and Baluchestan told IranWire: "Clearly, dervishes have been exiled to cities where there are no dervishes' assemblies: that is, Sunni cities.
“The government thinks it is punishing us by sending us to these areas and making us coexist with the Sunnis. Of course, this ruse has failed, because the Sunni people are friendly and sincere. Despite our differences in religion and ideological differences, we have something in common: the government is hostile to us.
“Tribal and ethnic minorities are accused of ‘conspiracy’ by the government, and the dervishes are coincidentally exiled to the same places where these minorities reside. We barely even feel homesick."
One of the other factors cited in the determination of exile colony sites is “security”. "The presence of security and military forces in these areas is significant," another interviewee told IranWire. "These cities are characterized as strategic security points; that is, border areas with more patrols and monitoring. The government stops these from growing so that it can control them.”
Tragedy of Exiled Baluchis Forced into Smuggling
Social conditions are also supposedly a key determinant for exile colonies. Video footage seen by IranWire shows how serious an issue this is becoming: there is a notable lack of basic facilities such as running water, school, work and even a safe shelter for living in some of these areas. Decades after Khamenei’s exile, people are still forced to live in tents in all weathers.
Members of the Sunni Baluchi community in the area are deprived of even the most basic facilities. One convict told IranWire: "When civil society groups bring food packages to the poor families, the mothers say they will eventually feed their babies, but they have no shoes.
“These children are naked. They do not even have proper clothes. Many of these children do not have a birth certificates because their fathers are not Iranian. There is one school here for such children, which was established by good people with the help of a retired teacher. There is no work here and the young people are forced to convey fuel for a living."
The Islamic Republic's treatment of these unwilling fuel-carriers is not dissimilar to its treatment of the kulbars, or couriers, on its western borders. News of the sporadic killing of these fuel-carriers surfaces from time to time in Iranian media reports.
Anam Dehvari, a Baluchi activist with an interest in asylum seekers’ narratives, tells IranWire that Baluch children are discriminated against from birth in Iran and subjected to constant violations of their rights as Iranian citizens. When Baluchi children inevitably drop out of school due to poverty, he said, most then turn to drug-smuggling to support themselves and their families: “Studying up to the level of the high school diploma is the furthest they go [in education]. Then they go into smuggling.
“Some are in charge of warehouses inside the city and others buy fuel cards from local people. Not everyone works on the borders, but everyone is involved in smuggling." Up to the point, Dehvari says, that even the Revolutionary Guards appear to be involved. “I saw with my own eyes IRGC vehicles escorting smugglers' vehicles. I knew the driver. I saw him in Saravan in 2010."
By choosing these areas for convicts’ “compulsory residence”, the Islamic Republic has chosen to impose poverty, a punishing security ecosystem and an elimination-based political approach on its own people. Children play barefoot in filthy streets. When the river bursts its banks it becomes the closes thing they have to a swimming pool, and when it dries up, the dead fish become the children’s toys. Whatever the spokesman for the judiciary opines, it is hard to consider these areas of abject deprivation and misery as anything other than “exile colonies”.