The prison sentences of two Iranian satirists have been upheld, the latest in a crackdown on the media and against people who have taken part in public protests.
Keyomars Marzban, 27, who has been in detention since September 2018, was handed down a 23-year prison sentence and told he would have to serve at least 11 years behind bars, and Pouria Alami, 37, a satirist for the reformist newspaper Shargh, was given a sentence of a year in prison.
Following pressures on Shargh, Alami, who was arrested by the intelligence ministry, decided to resign and wait to be summoned to start serving his sentence. The Revolutionary Guards’ Intelligence Unit arrested Keyomars Marzban. Over the years, the two government entities have been responsible for the arrests of numerous journalists, writers and artists, many of whom have been put under pressure to deliver forced confessions and given long prison sentences.
Security agencies have arrested other satirists and cartoonists in the past, including Ebrahim Nabavi, Mana Neyestani, Nikahang Kowsar, and Hadi Heydari. All, except Heydari, left Iran after getting out of jail.
Over the last 40 years the Islamic Republic of Iran has left no doubt that it does not tolerate writing, commentary or worka of art that it does not approve of, including satire.
Keyomars Marzban, who had returned to Iran to visit his ailing grandmother, was arrested a couple of months after his return and sent to Evin Prison. He is currently being kept at cell block 12 of Evin’s Ward 7, where many people accused of cooperating with “enemy states” — the US, Israel or the UK — are serving time. Most of the imprisoned dual nationals held by Iran are also kept on this ward.
In August 2019, Judge Abolghasem Salavati of Branch 15 of the Revolutionary Court sentenced Marzban to 11 years in prison for working with the “enemy state of America.” He was also sentenced to seven years and six months in prison for “insulting the sacred,” three years for insulting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, one and a half years for spreading propaganda against the government and nine months for insulting Iran’s authorities. The court also banned him from traveling abroad, publishing his writing and using social networking sites for two years.
In total he was sentenced to 23 years and nine months in prison and, according to Article 134 of the Islamic Penal Code, he must serve at least 11 years of his sentence. Less than two months later, Branch 36 of the Revolutionary Court of Appeals upheld the sentence of the lower court without any changes.
International human rights organizations, including ARTICLE 19, condemned Marzban's sentence. “The Iranian state continues to repress free speech through extreme prison sentences for those exercising their right to creative expression, especially individuals who do so through international organizations," said Thomas Hughes, the executive director of ARTICLE 19. "Keyomar’s work contributing creative writing to human rights organizations such as Freedom House should not be criminalized as cooperation with “enemy governments” or “espionage.” The organization called for the verdict to be overturned and for Marzban's immediate release.
Marzban’s lawyer, Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, has repeatedly denied that his client is guilty of the charges brought against him. “The longest portion of the sentence, 11 years, is related to the charge that my client has connections to hostile governments, meaning the United States,” he told IranWire after the verdict of the preliminary court was issued. He noted that Marzban has never traveled to the United States, nor has he had any work-related connections there. Aghasi added that the sentences handed down against Marzban actually went beyond the maximum limit for the crimes of which he has been accused.
Aghasi had asked judiciary officials for he and his client to be present at the appeals court but it was held in absentia. According to a decree by Ebrahim Raeesi, Iran’s new chief justice, judges of the courts of appeal can decide to issue their verdicts without the presence of the accused or their legal counsel at the trial. Aghasi says that he was informed two weeks ago that the court of appeals has issued its verdict. He received the verdict on Saturday, October 12, and informed the media the following day.
On October 12, Pouria Alami used his column in newspaper Shargh to announce that his one-year prison sentence on charges of “propaganda against the regime” had been upheld. “For days I have been waiting for somebody to tell me that this news is a lie, an error, and Pouria is not going to go to prison,” he wrote, “but it appears that the only mistake is us; we are the error.”
Alami’s lawyer Kaveh Rezvani Rad told the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA) the verdict is related to his arrest in 2013. Branch 26 of the Revolutionary Court sentenced him to five years in prison for “propaganda against the regime” and banned him from leaving Iran for two years. The court of appeals reduced the prison sentence to one year but upheld the two-year ban on leaving the country.
Rezvani Rad said he had requested a retrial and hopes the verdict will be vacated. And Mehdi Rahmanian, the publisher of Shargh newspaper, tweeted that Pouria Alami had tendered his resignation but has not yet been summoned to go to prison and is currently not behind bars. He expressed he and his colleagues’ hope that the sentence would not be carried out and Alami would stay out of prison.
In early 2013 the Intelligence Ministry arrested more than a dozen journalists, including Sasan Aghaei, Pouria Alami, Emily Amraee, Javad Daliri, Milad Fadaei, Narges Joudaki, Soleyman Mohammadi, Akbar Montajabi, Pejman Mousavi, Motahareh Shafiei and Nasrin Takhayori, on charges of "co-operation with Persian-language anti-revolutionary media.” Now, almost eight years later, the verdict against one of them has been issued.
A History of Targeting Satirists
In the late 1990s, the writer and satirist Ebrahim Nabavi was arrested twice for his work. He was a columnist for many high-circulation papers published during the presidency of the reformist Mohammad Khatami. He was first arrested in 1998 for “activities against national security” and later charged with “insulting the authorities and the regime of the Islamic Republic.” He eventually left Iran in 2003.
Mana Neyestani, the distinguished Iranian cartoonist whose work can be seen on IranWire regularly, was first arrested after Turkish-speaking ethnic Azerbaijanis protested against one of his cartoons, which they found offensive. He left Iran a short while after the protests against the disputed 2009 presidential election and now lives in France.
The cartoonist Nikahang Kowsar was arrested in February 2000 and spent six days in Evin Prison after publishing a cartoon entitled “Master Alligator,” which was seen by some Qom seminary students to be mocking the powerful Ayatollah Mesbah Yazdi. He was charged with undermining national security and insulting the ayatollah. Later, other charges, such as spreading untruthful material causing public unrest and making fun of religious scripture, were added to his case. He left Iran after he was released from detention but was sentenced to four months in prison in absentia.
Hadi Heydari, who remains in Iran and continues working with newspapers, was arrested by the Revolutionary Guards on November 16, 2015 while at work at the daily newspaper Shahrvand in Tehran. He was transferred to Evin Prison, reportedly to serve a one-year prison sentence he received in 2012 after drawing a cartoon entitled “Blindfolding.”
Hardline critics said the cartoon had insulted Iranian war heroes by depicting them as entering the eight-year-long war with Iraq wearing blindfolds. After the cartoon was published in Shargh newspaper, the paper was banned and Heydari was summoned to appear in court, where he denied his cartoon had any link to the war. The court eventually cleared the newspaper of wrongdoing and allowed it to resume publication.
However, the Revolutionary Guards compiled a case against Heydari, which targeted the majority of the cartoons he produced from 1998 to 2011. The Revolutionary Court sentenced Heydari to a year in prison on the charge of “spreading propaganda against the regime.”
Heydari was released in April 2016.