Three prominent Iranian writers have been arrested and transferred to Evin Prison to begin serving a total of 15 years behind bars, in the middle of a pandemic.
On Saturday, September 26, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, Baktash Abtin and Kayvan Bajan were detained on the orders of Evin Court’s enforcement branch. They were ordered to report to the prison in March this year to begin serving sentences – six years, six years, and three and a half years respectively – that were issued to them in 2019.
All three authors are members of the Iranian Writers’ Association, with Mahabadi and Abtin also elected as board members in 2014. Between them they have published many books on both Iran and Iranian literary criticism, as well as short story collections, with Abtin also a noted documentary filmmaker who has worked with BBC Persian.
The first hearing in their case took place on January 22, 2019 at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court. The charges brought against the trio included "spreading propaganda against the regime", "assembly and collusion against national security” and “encouraging women into corruption and prostitution” – for allegedly printing declarations opposing the censorship of art and literature in Iran.
In addition, they were told, their guilt was evinced in being members of the Writers’ Association, publishing its internal newsletter, compiling a 50-year history of the Association – which was never even published – and visiting the graves of Jafar Pouyandeh and Mohammad Mokhtari, former members of the Writers’ Association who were killed in 1998 in the state-sponsored chain murders.
The writers had first been questioned by the Intelligence Ministry back in 2015. During the January 2019 hearing, the judge denied them the right to legal representation, then ordered their release on bail of 100 million tomans (US$240,000) each: a huge sum that none of them could afford. They were sent to Evin Prison and released later that month after the bail amount was posted.
All three continued to vehemently protest their innocence. On December 29, 2019, Branch 36 of the Appeal Court upheld the sentences of Abtin and Mahabadi and commuted Bajan’s sentence from six years to three and a half.
"They think that by restricting and suppressing members of the Association, they can destroy all of its activities,” Baktash Abtin told IranWire’s sister website, Journalism is Not a Crime, at the time. “But the nature of the Association is such that it cannot be destroyed. We have been arrested, but others come in our place.
“At the heart of the Association's efforts is the fight against censorship and the restriction of thought, and the realization of the right to freedom.”
Abtin added that he did not accept the security-related charges, saying: "These are lies to build a case. We live in a country where everything is decided by the security forces and we have no choice but to suffer."
Since March this year the three have been repeatedly summoned but their committal to Evin Prison was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Now, however, all three have been incarcerated even as Iran is in the throes of a third wave of coronavirus.
Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, said: “Baktash Abtin, Reza Khandan-Mahabadi, and Keyvan Bahzan should never have been charged, certainly not convicted, and should by no means be sent to jail particularly at the present time, given the outbreak of COVID-19 in Iran.
“They are writers facing prosecution and persecution simply because they have written critically and consistently about successive Iranian governments. Rather preposterously, one of the charges they have faced is visiting the graves of dissident writers. At the time of the pandemic, which has had serious impact in Iran, its government’s priority should be protecting public health, and not intimidating or jailing writers.”
Judiciary Flouts its Own Policy on New Committals
In March 2020 the Iranian judiciary issued a statement announcing that, in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus in Iran’s dangerously overcrowded prisons, new committals would be postponed until after the outbreak was brought under control.
In recent months, despite the surge in Covid-19 cases and deaths across Iran, many political prisoners have been summoned to serve their sentences. Shirin Ebadi, a Nobel Prize-winning human rights lawyer, told Journalism is Not a Crime: "[Head of judiciary Ebrahim] Raisi, has spoken very contradictorily.
“They do not believe in what they say. He spoke of Islamic justice and kindness and claimed that 100,000 prisoners had been released due to the coronavirus outbreak. But not only were political prisoners not released, many have been transferred to prisons in the past few months.
"Examples are Giti Pourfazel, a brave lawyer who was transferred to prison 10 days ago to serve his sentence at the age of 78, and on September 26, three writers and members of the Writers Association were transferred to prison simply for writing.
“Raeesi claims that political defendants, or as he puts it, ‘security defendants’, who have been sentenced to more than five years in prison are not included in the ‘Islamic kindness’.
“Shabnam Nematzadeh, sentenced to 20 years in prison for financial crime, or Hossein Fereydoun, the president's brother sentenced to six years for financial crime, or Mehdi Hashemi, were immediately released. But political prisoners are forced to stay in prison and some of them, such as Narges Mohammadi and Amir Salar Davoudi, have contracted Covid-19 but not had their release approved.
"The so-called ‘Islamic kindness’ extends to affiliates of the regime and does not include ordinary people, especially if they are critical of the government's destructive policies."
Iranian Writers Targeted by the Regime for Decades
In a statement published online, the Association condemned the transfer of its three members to Evin Prison, calling the move “a sign of increasing pressure on independent writers… Instead of responding to the legitimate demands of the people,” it continued, “[the government] has increasingly suppressed freedom of expression.”
Summoning them to prison during a pandemic, the Association added, was “nothing less than sending protesters and opponents of the government to the altar.”
Since the start of last year at least three other members of the Writers 'Association, including its translator and secretary Arash Ganji, the poet Milad Jannat and Ahmad Zahed Langroudi, editor of the independent journal Gilan-Oja, have been arrested.
The Iranian Writers' Association is an NGO consisting of writers, translators and editors and part of the International Writers Association. It was established in 1968 with the aim of forming a trade union and fighting censorship, but came under immense pressure in the Islamic Republic from the 1980s onward.
Many of its members have been harassed, prosecuted and imprisoned, and some even abducted and killed. One of its most prominent luminaries, Faraj Sarkohi, left the country for good after being kidnapped and tortured in the late 1990s.
Sarkohi had been instrumental in drawing up the Association’s headline-making charter, entitled We Are the Writers, which was published in 1994 and signed by 134 Iranian men and women of letters and protested against government censorship of literature.
In August 1996 during the chain murders of Iranian dissidents, the government planned to kill some 21 poets, writers and journalists, including Sarkohi, who were traveling by bus to a literary conference in Armenia. The driver of the bus had been supposed to drive the vehicle off a cliff near the Heyran Pass, and when he jumped out to save himself, two of the passengers managed to bring it to a halt just in time to save all those onboard.
In the same year, as Sarkohi was leaving Iran for Germany to visit his family, he was abducted at Mehrabad airport by the Ministry of Intelligence agents and tortured for over a month at a secret detention center. He left Iran for good in 1998 after his release from prison.
Two other members of the Iranian Writers' Association, the author and poet Mohammad Mokhtari and the translator Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh, were murdered in the same Intelligence Ministry-backed political killing spree after disappearing on December 4 and 9, 1998. Their bodies were recovered some time later. Every year since then, writers who attend mourning ceremonies in their honor have been harassed by security agents, and no funeral has ever been permitted at their final resting place in Taher Cemetery.