Iranian Dervish activists
Undated images of four Iranian Dervish activists sent into internal exile in Iran after being released from prison from March to May 2020. From left to right: Saeed Soltanpour, Reza Entesari, Sina Entesari and Saeed Dourandish (VOA Persian)

WASHINGTON - Activists of Iran’s Gonabadi Dervish religious minority who have been forced to live far from home after release from prison have rejected an Iranian official’s contention that Tehran has no policy of exiling freed convicts to impoverished and remote parts of the country.

Iranian judiciary spokesperson Gholamhossein Esmaili made the assertion in a Tuesday press briefing, saying the judiciary does not have a predetermined list of places to which it banishes some released Iranian convicts who had been sentenced to live away from their hometowns for periods of time after prison. Esmaili was responding to Iranian state media reports published earlier this month citing a purported interior ministry list of 36 locations designated as places where convicts should live in internal exile as part of their sentences.

Article 23 of Iran’s 2013 Islamic Penal Code gives judges the power to add a variety of punishments to prison terms for people convicted certain crimes. The additional sentences can include a “compulsory residence in a specified place” and a “ban on residing in a specified place (or in specified places)” after prison. Both types of punishment involve forcing the convicts to live away from their homes for specific periods, typically lasting several years.

'Improper' locations

Iran’s penal code does not specify what types of places should serve as “compulsory” residences for released convicts sentenced to banishment from their homes. There also is no such specification in a June 2019 judicial regulation explaining how the penal code’s Article 23 is supposed to be implemented.

Article 135 of the regulation, published in Iran’s government gazette, says various government agencies must compile only a list of locations deemed “improper” as places of banishment for released convicts due to the “political, security and social” conditions of those places.

Despite Iran's lack of a publicly disclosed official list of places deemed suitable for internal exile, authorities in the country have been banishing some released convicts to certain impoverished and remote areas for decades, dating back to the reign of the last Iranian monarch, or shah, whom the nation’s current ruling clerics ousted in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

In Tuesday interviews with VOA Persian, four Dervish activists who have been forced to live in such places since being released from prison earlier this year said the Iranian judiciary spokesman’s assertion that no convicts are exiled to predetermined locations is untrue.

The four activists, Saeed Dourandish, Reza Entesari, Sina Entesari and Saeed Soltanpour, all were detained in February 2018 during Iranian Dervish anti-government street protests in Tehran. Iranian authorities later sentenced them each to five years in prison, before granting them early releases in March and May of this year to ease overcrowding in the nation's coronavirus-infested jails. However, the four activists also were forced to go into internal exile after being freed, under the terms of their sentences.

Dourandish and Soltanpour have been in exile in the eastern Iranian towns of Zabol and Zahak respectively, near the Iranian border with Afghanistan. Reza Entesari has been exiled to the northeastern town of Khaf near Afghanistan, while Sina Entesari has been exiled to the southeastern town of Mirjaveh adjacent to the Pakistani border. All four towns are impoverished and located 1,000 to 1,500 kilometers from Tehran by road.

Life in internal exile

While serving their sentences of internal exile, released Iranian convicts are required to report to local authorities daily or almost daily. Some also face additional restrictions on their ability to work and interact with other people.

Soltanpour said he and other released Dervish prisoners have been sent “especially” to live in poor towns near Iran’s eastern border.

“Life is a struggle for people in these poor cities and health conditions are bad, too,” said Dourandish.

Reza Entesari said if judiciary spokesperson Esmaili is correct about Iran not designating any particular places as suitable for banishment of convicts, “Why are they sending political prisoners to internal exile only in cities with harsh climates? Why not also send us to cities with good weather such as Shiraz, Mashhad or Bushehr?”

“My life is centered in Tehran, but they sent me all the way to the southeastern border of the country,” Sina Entesari said. “Iran’s intelligence authorities decided which cities to banish political prisoners to, based on where the released prisoners would suffer the most.”

The Dervishes involved in the 2018 protests in Tehran had been demanding the release of arrested members of their community and the removal of security checkpoints around the house of their elderly leader, Noor Ali Tabandeh. He later died in December 2019.

Members of the Sufi Muslim religious sect long have complained of harassment by Iran’s Shiite Islamist rulers, who view them as heretics.

This article originated in VOA’s Persian Service. Click here for the original Persian version of the story. Mehdi Jedinia of VOA’s Extremism Watch Desk contributed.