Iran: Sufi bus driver at risk of imminent execution amid grave unfair trial concerns
Iranian authorities must urgently stop the imminent execution of Mohammad Salas, a 51-year-old man from one of Iran’s largest Sufi orders, the Nemattolah Gonabadi order, and to immediately quash his death sentence, Amnesty International said today.
“Amnesty International has received information that indicates a huge miscarriage of justice may be carried out if the Iranian authorities go through with this execution. We call on the authorities to immediately quash the death sentence of Mohammad Salas and to order a retrial that meets international fair trial standards without recourse to the death penalty,” said Philip Luther, Research and Advocacy Director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.
Prison authorities phoned Mohammad Salas’ family on the evening of 16 June and told them to go to Raja’i Shahr prison where he is imprisoned in Karaj, near Tehran, to visit him for the final time at 3.30pm local time on 17 June. This indicates that his execution is imminent, and could happen within days if not hours.
Following a grossly unfair trial, Mohammad Salas was sentenced to death on 19 March 2018 after the judge found him guilty of the murder of three police officers that took place during a protest by the Gonabadi Dervish religious group, a persecuted minority in Iran.
The sole piece of evidence used to convict him was a “confession” that Mohammad Salas has said was forcefully elicited after he was severely beaten by police officers. He has since retracted his “confession” and his lawyer has said there is new evidence pointing to his innocence; however, the Supreme Court has rejected his request for a judicial review.
The protests in question, which took place on 19 February 2018, turned violent after security forces resorted to beatings and the use of live ammunition, water cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowd. Three police officers, Reza Emami, Mohammad Ali Bayrami and Reza Moradi Alamdar, were left dead after they were run over by a bus in the early evening around 6.30pm. According to Mohammad Salas and several eye witnesses, he was arrested between 2.30pm and 4.30pm and accused of their murder.
“In their haste to do justice, the authorities have trampled all over this man’s rights. By not allowing Mohammad Salas access to a lawyer before and during his trial and dismissing key defence witnesses who can testify that he was already in detention when the three policemen were killed, it appears that the authorities have been more interested in vengeance at any cost than in justice,” said Philip Luther.
“This case has laid bare the flaws in Iran’s criminal justice system for all to see. We call on the international community to do everything in their power to stop the execution of Mohammad Salas.
“If the Iranian authorities follow through with this execution after a grossly unfair trial where the only piece of evidence was a forced ‘confession’ extracted through torture, it will be a truly abhorrent act of injustice.”
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Mohammad Salas was arrested around 2.30pm on 19 February outside a police station where thousands of Gonabadi dervish protesters had gathered to peacefully protest the persecution of the Gonabadi dervish community in Iran.
Salas, a bus driver by profession, has said that he was repeatedly beaten in the police station where he was held for several hours. He has said that he heard one police officer order the others to “beat him until he dies”. He was eventually taken, unconscious, to a hospital to treat his injuries, which included cuts to the head requiring stitches, broken teeth, broken ribs, a broken nose, and a partial loss of vision.
Scared, disoriented and drowsy after being reportedly tortured, Salas awoke to find a police investigator by his bed, who forced him to sign a pre-written statement “confessing” to the murders. Salas was unable to read the statement because he has limited literacy and also cannot read without his glasses. The interrogation was conducted without a lawyer present.
Another man who was also in the room then put a camera and microphone in front of Salas and asked him why he had killed the three policemen. This video of his “confession” was broadcast on Iran’s state news agency, the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), on 20 February, the day after his arrest.
He was subsequently transferred to Shapour detention centre in Tehran, run by the Investigation Unit of Iran’s police (Agahi), which is notorious for extracting “confessions” through torture, where he was held in solitary confinement without access to his family or lawyer.
On 1 March 2018, weeks before Salas’ trial had begun, Tehran’s Police Chief and Revolutionary Guards General Hossein Rahimi said in an interview with IRIB that Mohammad Salas would be executed for the murder of the policemen, thus violating the right to presumption of innocence.
Salas has said he was beaten in the Agahi detention centre and made to “confess” in court that he had killed the policemen. He has said that his beatings were so severe that one of his fingers was broken.
During the trial, state news agencies broadcast selected clips from the courtroom, attempted to smear Mohammad Salas’ character by using details about his personal life, and featured interviews with family members of the deceased policemen stating they want the punishment of qesas (retribution in kind) through his execution.
At the final trial session on 18 March 2018, he retracted his “confession” and said that he only “confessed” because he had been tortured and threatened. He denied murdering the policemen, and said he was already under arrest and in detention, with several witnesses present, when they were killed.
According to information received by Amnesty International, there are several witnesses, some of whom were also arrested at the protest, who were ready to give eye witness testimonies to support Mohammad Salas’ statement. According to his lawyer, new witnesses have also claimed that the person behind the wheel of the bus that ran over the policemen was a young man.
At no point was Mohammad Salas allowed a lawyer of his choosing, even though his family had retained a lawyer to represent him. At trial, the judge did not order any investigations into his allegations of torture, nor did he allow any of the witnesses who could testify on behalf of Salas to do so.
Instead, on 19 March, using only the “confession” Mohammad Salas had made on his hospital bed, Branch 9 of the Criminal Court of Tehran convicted Salas of murder and sentenced him to death. The conviction and sentence were upheld by the Supreme Court, which later rejected an application for a judicial review of his case. His lawyer will submit a second application for a judicial review to Branch 35 of the Supreme Court on 17 June 2018.
Gonabadi Dervishes in Iran consider themselves to be Shi’a Muslims. They are Sufis who describe Sufism as neither a religion nor a sect, but rather a way of life by which people – from any religion – may find God. However, Iran’s Supreme Leader and influential figures deem their beliefs to be “false mysticism”. Consequently, Gonabadi Dervishes have faced discrimination, harassment, arbitrary arrest and detention, imprisonment and flogging sentences, and attacks on their sacred or important sites.
Amnesty International opposes the death penalty in all cases without exception regardless of the nature or circumstances of the crime; guilt, innocence or other characteristics of the individual; or the method used by the state to carry out the execution. The organization campaigns for the total abolition of the death penalty.
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