Iranian Imprisoned Spiritual Leader Awaiting New Verdict While IRGC Arrests His Followers
Followers of imprisoned Iranian spiritual leader Mohammad Ali Taheri are being arrested by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) while he awaits a verdict more than three weeks after he was retried for the charge of “corruption on earth.”
“[Branch 26 of the Revolutionary] Court should have issued a ‘not guilty’ verdict by now, but I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Taheri’s lawyer, Mahmoud Alizadeh Tabatabaee, in an interview with the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) on August 8, 2017. “Personally I’m not optimistic.”
Tabatabaee also told CHRI that Taheri’s followers have meanwhile been arrested in raids carried out by the IRGC throughout the country.
“The detainees and their families contacted me from various cities about the arrests of people who attended Erfan Halegh classes,” he said. “Although there’s nothing bad or illegal about these classes, they have been banned by the authorities, who are treating them as security cases.”
Iran’s security establishment has come down hard on Taheri and supporters of his Erfan-e Halgheh spiritual group, viewing it and any other alternative belief system, especially those seeking converts, as a threat to the prevailing Shia order.
During a speech on December 28, 2016, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei described the emergence of spiritual groups in Iran as a Western plot to undermine Islam.
“The enemies are plotting to weaken our young people’s faith in Islam and Islamic principles by encouraging promiscuity and promoting false spirituality, Bahaism and home churches,” he said.
The Tasnim news agency, which maintains close ties with the IRGC, reported the arrests of 31 Taheri followers by the IRGC between July 18 and August 3, 2017 in the cities of Najafabad, Tabriz and Isfahan.
“In the past two months, 76 Erfan-e Halgheh followers have been detained, but most of them have been released,” according to Sara Saei, a Taheri follower who moved to London in 2016 after being summoned to court in Tehran for peacefully demanding Taheri’s freedom.
“They have been arresting everybody attending our classes, but while the students are quickly released, the instructors are held for interrogation to get them to ‘confess,’” she told CHRI.
“Those who were recently detained have been asked to make statements against Mohammad Ali Taheri or even to make charges against him,” she added.
In March 2017, Iran’s state-funded Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) aired a documentary titled “The Devil’s Circle,” which included alleged “confessions” from Taheri and several of his followers about the group’s ideology and activities.
In the heavily edited interviews, Taheri’s “students” claimed he taught anti-Islamic ideas and encouraged them to distance themselves from God and Islam. One woman said her daughter stopped praying after attending his classes.
Forced “confessions” in politically motivated cases in Iran are often extracted under the threat of or actual torture and then broadcast by IRIB to justify politically motivated prosecutions.
“This program was shown to deceive the public,” Taheri’s sister, Azardokht Taheri, told CHRI at the time. “Mr. Taheri has many students and they have always said that they got good results from his courses. Why weren’t they interviewed?”
“Nowhere (in the video) does Mr. Taheri say he has done anything wrong,” she added. “They aired only bits and pieces of his statements. We’re worried that it was aired for sinister reasons.”
In December 2015, the Supreme Court rejected the death penalty against Taheri on the charge of “corruption on earth,” which was issued because he had published several books on spirituality that were deemed un-Islamic by the state.
The case was sent back to the lower court for re-sentencing, and his new trial took place on July 17, 2017.
“In his last statements to the court, Mr. Taheri said his past activities were conducted in good faith with the permission of the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry, the police and other authorities,” Tabatabaee told CHRI. “But if the law says they are not beneficial, he will discontinue his activities.”
In addition to leading the Erfan-e Halgheh spiritual organization, which he established in the 2000s, Taheri taught at Tehran University. He was practicing a form of alternative medicine based on his spiritual beliefs when he was arrested on May 4, 2010 and charged with “insulting the sacred,” “immoral contact with women,” and “carrying out illegal medical procedures.”
He was sentenced to five years in prison along with 74 lashes, and fined nine billion rials (approximately $300,000).
Four years later, in 2014, he was re-questioned about his books and sentenced to death for spreading “corruption on earth.” He was due to be released in the summer of 2016, but has been kept in Evin Prison in Tehran pending the verdict of his latest trial.