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Sufi journalist Mostafa Abdi has reportedly been sentenced to 26 years in prison as well as nearly 150 lashes. (file photo)

Thirty-three-year-old Mostafa Abdi, a member of Iran's largest Sufi order and editor of a news outlet focused on the Gonabadi dervish community, appears set to spend the most productive years of his life in an Iranian prison.

Abdi was reportedly sentenced earlier this month to more than 26 years, and 148 lashes, following a conviction on security charges that include acting against Iran's national security, spreading propaganda against the Iranian establishment, and disrupting public order.

Abdi, who previously spent three years in jail on similar charges, must also spend two years in internal exile in one of Iran's most remote provinces. He can neither travel outside the country nor participate in any media or political activities for two years after his prison sentence is served.

His is one in a recent slew of sentences stemming from an ongoing crackdown against dervishes and detentions that followed clashes between members of that sect and security forces in the capital in February.

Three security troops died when they were run down by a bus and two Basij militia members during those skirmishes, which began with protests sparked by rumors -- dismissed by authorities -- that police planned to arrest the sect's 90-year-old leader. Some 300 dervishes were said to have been arrested following that unrest.

Iranian security forces clash with members of the Gonabadi Sufi community in Tehran on February 19.
Iranian security forces clash with members of the Gonabadi Sufi community in Tehran on February 19.

Eight of Abdi's colleagues at the Majzooban news outlet are said to have been ordered to serve prison terms ranging from five to 12 years in addition to lashes and two-year bans on journalistic activities.

The dervishes have long complained of persecution and an official gag on reporting on their plight among Iran's heavily censored state news outlets.

'Persecuting Independent News'

Many conservatives in Iran describe them as heretics and a danger to Islam.

Paris-based media watchdog Reporters Without Borders warned on August 23 that the recent sentences are examples of how Iranian judicial authorities "persecute independently reported news and information."

The fates of many of the other dervishes arrested after the February violence remain unclear, although one man, Mohammad Reza Salas, was hanged after being convicted in a widely criticized trial of killing the police officers, and another reportedly died after being taken into official custody.

Mohammad Reza Salas (center) at his trial in March.
Mohammad Reza Salas (center) at his trial in March.

Amnesty International said security forces in February resorted to beatings, water cannons, tear gas, and guns to disperse a crowd of dervishes gathered outside the home of their nonagenarian leader, Paris-educated lawyer Nurali Tabandeh, to thwart a rumored detention.

Authorities have described dervishes as "rioters" and "seditionists" in connection with the confrontations and accused them of attacking security forces with sticks and rocks.

Hard-line clerics have called for the stiffest of punishments, with some equating them with the militant group Islamic State (IS).

Salas's execution was criticized by Amnesty International as a "travesty of justice."

'Millions Under Pressure'

Dozens of those detained have been sentenced to prison terms in recent weeks, according to Sufi sources that quoted the families of detainees.

"The severe prison sentences issued for the dervishes are an ultimatum to others not to speak up," Turkey-based Majzooban editor Alireza Roshan, who describes the prisoners as "hostages" of the clerical establishment, said.

Roshan said another Majzooban editor and reporter, Kasra Nuri, was sentenced to 12 years in prison along with several members of his family. Nuri's two brothers, a photographer and a law student, received two- and six-year prison sentences, and his mother, a kindergarten teacher, was sentenced to five years in prison, Roshan said.

Mohammad Sharifi Moghadam, a Majzooban reporter and rights activist, was sentenced to 12 years in prison, according to a family member.

Three other members of the website, Sina Entesari, his brother Reza Entesari, and editor Salaheddin Moradi, were each sentenced to seven years in prison.

The spiritual leader of the Gonabadi Dervishes Nurali Tabandeh (file photo)
The spiritual leader of the Gonabadi Dervishes Nurali Tabandeh (file photo)

At least three women who contributed to Majzooban have been sentenced to five years in prison.

Roshan said the establishment has dealt a serious blow to the Gonabadi order.

"Two hundred and eight dervishes have been sentenced to a total of 1,076 years in prison," Roshan said, adding, "It's a deadly blow; it's like a truck hitting a small car, leaving several people in a coma."

"We don't have just 300 prisoners -- millions of dervishes are under pressure," the wife of a Majzooban staff member who faces more than a decade in prison, told RFE/RL. She requested anonymity out of fear of official retribution for speaking out. "A totalitarian establishment does not want to hear any voice other than its own, it aims at eliminating [dissenting] groups."

She added that Iranian authorities were "cracking down on the dervishes harder because they fear their unity."

Abdi's father, Hassan Abdi, said his son's "extraordinary and unbelievable" sentence was aimed at creating fear. "A radical current in the country sees dervishes as rivals and wants to counter them and show its power. They've succeeded in the short run," he said. "In the long run, these methods won't resolve the country's problems."

He said his son was not planning to appeal his sentence.

"The managers and reporters of Majzooban will not appeal, and I support their decision," Hassan Abdi said. "The court refused lawyers for my son and others who could not defend themselves. We consider the court's decision illegal."

Russian opposition activist Aleksei Navalny (file photo)

Russian opposition politician and anticorruption campaigner Aleksei Navalny has been detained outside his residence in Moscow, his spokeswoman Kira Yarmysh said on Twitter on August 25.

Yarmysh said Navalny had been taken to a local police station and that his cell phone was taken away by the police.

She said later that his detention appears to be connected to January 28 protests supporting a boycott of Russia's presidential election.

More than 250 people, including Navalny, were detained across the country during those protests.

Yarmysh said in a tweet later on August 25 that Navalny was taken from the Moscow police precinct where he was held due to a suspected injury to his finger that he may have suffered as he was being detained.

He was later brought back to the precinct and is expected to face a court hearing on August 27, Yarmysh wrote.

Russia's state-run TASS news agency cited the press office of the Moscow city police as saying that it did not have any information about Navalny's detention.

Navalny, 42, has served several jail terms on charges related to organizing antigovernment protests, and he was convicted twice on financial-crimes charges he says were trumped up by the Kremlin as retribution for his opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Most recently, he was released in June after serving 30 days in jail for organizing protests against Putin's inauguration in early May.

Navalny was barred from running in the March 18 presidential election because of his criminal record. That election, which Kremlin critics say was rigged in Putin's favor, handed the Russian president a fresh six-year term.

Earlier on August 25, Navalny announced on Twitter that he and his team planned to make several "very cool announcements" via his YouTube channel and urged people to tune in.

The YouTube link attached to the tweet said the video was unavailable.

Yarmysh said she believes Navalny’s detention is linked to protests he is organizing in numerous Russian cities on September 9 against a controversial government plan to raise the retirement age.

The plan sparked widespread anger after it was announced last month, and Putin's approval ratings have fallen.

Tens of thousands of people protested in cities across the country on July 28, and many other demonstrations have been held.

A top security official at the Moscow mayor's office said on August 25 that city authorities were considering an application filed by Navalny's supporters to stage the protest in the Russian capital on September 9, the same day that the Moscow mayoral election will be held.

Navalny's supporters are seeking permission to hold the protest on a central Moscow street near the Kremlin.

Moscow authorities frequently reject opposition activists' requests to stage rallies in the city center, citing security concerns and disruptions for road traffic and pedestrians.

With reporting by RFE/RL’s Russian Service, Reuters, and Interfax

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"Watchdog" is a blog with a singular mission -- to monitor the latest developments concerning human rights, civil society, and press freedom. We'll pay particular attention to reports concerning countries in RFE/RL's broadcast region.


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