Abulghasem Salavati, who heads Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran, is known as one of Iran’s “hanging judges.” As the London Guardian reported recently, Salavati and his colleague, Mohammad Moghiseh, are most prominent judges in a drive to suppress independent journalists and political dissenters. The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), a professional organization based in Brussels, denounced Iran on July 29 for keeping 27 journalists locked up.
The careers of Salavati and Moghiseh are a microcosm of the denial of justice in Iran. Salavati has been accused for years of holding short, secret proceedings in which legal standards are ignored, as he threatens defendants and acts as a prosecutor rather than a judge. Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, an Iranian opposition advocate now living in Norway, described Salavati ordering half a dozen death sentences against protestors in the reformist “Green movement” of 2009. More than 100 participants in the “Green movement” were charged in a mass show trial held in Tehran that year, over which Salavati presided.
Last year, Salavati punished seven spiritual Sufis who worked on Majzooban Nur (The Alluring Light), the website of the Gonabadi-Nimatullahi metaphysical order, which claims to be the largest such body in Iran. When the seven declined to appear in court, Salavati declared, according to the Sufis, “I will sentence them in absentia,” which is illegal in Iran.
Among the persecuted Gonabadis, Hamid Reza Moradi, the website director, received ten and a half years in prison, and Reza Entesari, a photographer for Majzooban Nur, was ordered to serve eight and a half years. Salavati ruled that five other Sufis be jailed for seven and a half years each. The seven are confined in ward 350 of Tehran’s abominable Evin prison. The “hanging judge” decreed that the Gonabadi Sufis be prohibited from involvement in media or political actions.
In 2012, Majzooban Nurreported, the Sufis had filed a grievance against Judge Salavati before Iran’s Court of Judicial Discipline. The Islamic contemplatives alleged that Salavati had refused those facing him the right of legal defense, imposing penalties exceeding those mandated by law, handing down sentences contrary to the indictments, and interfering with medical treatment.
After months of inaction, court officials absolved Salavati of misconduct. The Gonabadi Sufis appealed the decision favoring Salavati to Branch 10 of the Special Court for Government Employees, without effect.
On January 5, 2014, the Sufis filed a second letter of complaint against Salavati with the Court of Judicial Discipline. Therein, they alleged that in the aftermath of their first such petition, Salavati increased his aggressive and unjust conduct, with new violations of procedure and law. The second petition has yet to be answered.
In June this year, Gonabadi Sufis in the city of Golpayegan, in the central Iranian province of Isfahan, complained that a Sufi, Abbas Salehian, had been sent to prison for six months by the local Special Clerical Court, for adherence to the Gonabadis. Salehian is not a cleric and should not be subject to the jurisdiction of the Special Clerical Court. A Sufi companion of Salehian in Golpayegan, Emran Doost-Mohammadi, has also been investigated.
At Dasht, a village in Isfahan, the Gonabadis said in June, official clerics began inciting local residents against the Sufis by describing the mystics as “unbelievers” and “Wahhabis.” The identification of Sufis with Wahhabis appeared particularly bizarre. Since the rise of their movement in central Arabia in the 18th century, Wahhabis have been the most violent enemies of Sufism. Gonabadis warned that the intent of the state religious officials appeared to be to continue the harassment that produced the wrecking, in February 2009, of the tomb in Isfahan of the 19th-century poet Nasir Ali, which had been used since 2002 by the Sufis.
On July 11, 2014, the Gonabadi Sufis announced that the northern Iranian city of Sari, near the coast of the Caspian Sea, was the scene of a trial by the local Special Clerical Court, which removed a Shia Muslim cleric, Mohammad Nouri, from his religious duties for affiliation with the Gonabadi Sufis. The only offenses with which Nouri was charged were “joining the Sufis while in clerical costume” and “participating in Gonabadi ceremonies in Tehran and other cities.” The court deemed involvement with the Sufis to be “disrespectful and defamatory of clerical [status] and contrary to the dignity of a cleric.” Nouri said he had been interrogated and threatened repeatedly by anonymous agents of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
Salavati’s associate as a “hanging judge,” Mohammad Moghiseh, has meanwhile sentenced eight Iranian Facebook users—six men and two women—to a total of 127 years in prison. According to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran (ICHRI), such verdicts “go beyond what Iran’s own laws dictate.” Under Article 134 of the new Islamic Penal Code, “the maximum sentence for the suspects should have been 7.5 years [each]” if they were proved to have “acted against national security.”
Instead, the eight Facebook users, who were detained in late summer and autumn 2013, were ordered incarcerated as follows: Roya Saberinejad Nobakht, 20 years behind bars; Amir Golestani, 20 years and one day; Masoud Ghasemkhani, 19 years, 91 days; Fariborz Kardarfar, 18 years, 91 days; Seyed Masoud Seyed Talebi, 15 years, one day; Amin (Farid) Akramipour, 13 years; Mehdi Reyshahri, 11 years; Naghmeh Shahsavandi Shirazi, 7 years and 91 days.
The Facebook group were tried for “propaganda against the state,” “insulting the supreme leader (Ali Khamenei),” “assembly and collusion against national security,” “blasphemy,” “creating public anxiety,” and “spreading falsehoods.” A source requesting anonymity told ICHRI that the six male prisoners have been transferred to the “home” of the Gonabadi Sufis in ward 350 at Evin Prison. The source said, “Some of them also face the charge of ‘possession of vulgar CDs.’ When the agents went to their homes for their arrests, they found some original, uncensored CDs of Hollywood films. In the charges it is stated that they published vulgar photographs in cyberspace, and the example provided was the photograph of a man and a woman embracing. . . . From what I saw, not only are these individuals not political activists, they don’t even know the alphabet of politics! They were isolated individuals from different layers of society who merely had some activities in cyberspace.”
The ferocity of the regime’s attack on innocuous Facebook users parallels the brutality of the effort to silence the Gonabadi Sufis. Like Sufis in many Muslim countries, the Gonabadi-Nimatullahis concentrated historically on sacred devotions. But Tehran’s mania for identifying and suppressing nonconformists of any variety pushed the authorities to define traditional religious practices in Iran, the world’s leading country in Sufi activities, as subversive and menacing to the clerical dictatorship.