For over 20 years, the Imam Ali’s Popular Student Relief Society has worked on combating poverty and helping vulnerable children in Iran.
But the charity, which has over 10,000 volunteers across Iran, has come under mounting pressure from the authorities in recent years. In 2021, an Iranian court ordered the independent NGO be dissolved, a ruling that was upheld by an appeals court last year.
In July 2021, the charity’s founder, Sharmin Meymandinejad, was arrested and charged with insulting Iran’s leaders. He was kept in detention for months, during which he alleges he was tortured.
In an interview with RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, Meymandinejad, who recently fled Iran, said the clerical establishment saw his grassroots organization as a threat.
He said his organization’s interpretation of Islam clashed with what he called the intolerant and violent version promoted by the authorities.
“Our path was different than the one taken by the establishment, our reading of the religion was an attempt to promote self-sacrifice, mercy, and altruism,” said the 53-year-old, who now resides in the United States with his wife and three children.
“But the reading promoted by the establishment is based on violence, which the authorities claim comes from above, they even say from God,” he added.
The crackdown on the charity, which is widely known as the Imam Ali’s Society, came after years of state pressure and a smear campaign by hard-liners, who have branded the organization a cult, Meymandinejad said.
One of the NGO’s biggest critics has been the ultra-hard-line daily Kayhan, whose editor in chief was appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
“We didn’t want to challenge the establishment. We were doing social work based on real [Islamic] principles,” said Meymandinejad.
“They saw that a [nongovernmental] group was doing the work [of the government] and that comparisons could be made,” he said.
The Imam Ali’s Society has been credited with helping alleviate poverty and aiding marginalized Iranians. In comparison, large state charities with extensive funds are often seen as corrupt and ineffective.
The Imam Ali’s Society, one of the largest NGOs in the Islamic republic, was launched in 1999 by a group of students led by Meymandinejad at Tehran’s Sharif University of Technology. The organization originally focused on poverty alleviation but has since expanded its activities to include providing education, medical care, and social and cultural events for vulnerable children and campaigning against the death penalty for offenders who committed crimes as minors. The group has been credited with saving around 50 minors on death row.
Rights groups criticized the 2021 court order to disband the Imam’s Ali Society as an assault on independent NGOs and said the ruling had been “made in apparent coordination with Iran’s abusive intelligence and security apparatus.”
It is unclear if the charity is still active or has been dissolved.
The original court order was issued following a complaint by the Interior Ministry, which said the Imam Ali’s Society had “deviated” from its mission. As evidence, the court cited the group’s “questioning of Islamic rulings,” including the principle of qisas, or retributive justice, as well as “promoting falsehood by publishing statements against the Islamic republic of Iran.”
The move came amid a wider crackdown on civil society and dissent. Scores of activists, lawyers, and journalists have been arrested in recent years.
The Oslo-based Iran Human Rights reported last year that two other NGOs, including the Society For the Protection of Children, have also come under pressure by the authorities.
In his interview with Radio Farda, Meymandinejad also accused the authorities of sending children from poor Iranian families to fight in the war in Syria, where Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) deployed military advisers and fighters to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Meymandinejad also accused the authorities of using minors to help crush nationwide antiestablishment protests that erupted in September.
Photos appeared on social media in October that purportedly showed children and adolescent boys wearing uniforms and holding batons. They appeared to be wearing the uniforms of the Basij paramilitary forces, a branch of the IRGC.
Members and supporters of the Imam Ali’s Society said the authorities had recruited children from impoverished families to help “suppress” the street protests. In exchange, the minors received a “few bags of food,” the charity said.
The Imam Ali’s Society was among several groups that warned that the use of child soldiers was against international law.
Meymandinejad said he will continue to hold Iran’s clerical establishment accountable for its actions even from exile.
He said state pressure and the alleged torture he suffered during his time in detention forced him to leave his homeland.
“I was weak, I wasn’t strong like [prominent jailed rights activist] Narges Mohammadi. I was concerned that my children will pay the price for my activities,” he said.
“After four months of torture I broke and signed whatever they wanted. I broke because of my children,” he added.