Iranian courts have sentenced more than 200 members of a Sufi order to prison terms and other punishments over the past four months in one of the largest crackdowns against a religious minority in Iran in a decade, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says.
In a statement on August 29, the New York-based group said the sentencing of at least 208 members of the dervish community since May "in violation of their fair trial rights is the latest reminder of the way the Iranian authorities' repressive security apparatus preys on their own citizens every day."
HRW said the sentences handed down by revolutionary courts against followers of the Nemattolah Gonabadi order, known as dervishes, included prison terms ranging from four months to 26 years, flogging, internal exile, travel bans, and a ban on membership in social and political groups.
Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam, is not illegal in Iran but rights groups accuse the Iranian government of harassment and discrimination against its followers.
The authorities also detained more than 300 dervishes following protests in January and February that included violent clashes between dervishes and security forces in the capital, Tehran.
"Authorities have used the February protests as an excuse to intimidate this vulnerable group and silence another segment of Iranian society demanding basic rights from a repressive security state,” according to Sarah Leah Whiston, Middle East director at HRW.
Dozens of community members gathered in Tehran’s Pasdaran neighborhood in January and February to protect the residence of their spiritual leader, Nurali Tabandeh, whom they feared police planned to arrest.
On February 19-20, media and witnesses reported that clashes between security forces and protesters left several dozen dervishes injured and four law enforcement agents dead, including three who were struck by a bus.
During trials that lasted as short as 15 minutes, judges insulted the accused and focused their questions on their faith as opposed to any recognizable crime, HRW quoted informed sources as saying.
The charges and evidence against the defendants have not been publicly available.
But several verdicts made public by family members indicate judges used what HRW called "vaguely defined" national security charges to prosecute "largely peaceful activism."
Mohammad Reza Salas, a dervish was executed in June for allegedly killing three police officers by driving a bus into a crowd of security officers during the February clashes in Tehran.
He had been convicted in March after a trial which HRW said raised "serious concerns about its fairness" and allegations that he was tortured while in detention.
Amnesty International has also condemned Salas’s execution, calling it "a travesty of justice that is abhorrent and unconscionable."
The U.S. State Department said Salas's "rushed execution is the latest example of the Iranian regime’s disregard for the human rights of its citizens."