Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, Reza Khandan Mahabadi
Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi are celebrated writers, free expression advocates, and board members of the Iranian Writers Association (IWA). The three writers are serving a collective 15 years and 6 months in prison on spurious national security and propaganda charges; their detention stems both from their public profiles as writers and creatives, as well as their work and advocacy against the state’s encroachments on free expression. On January 8, 2022, Baktash Abtin died in a Tehran hospital after battling COVID-19, which he contracted during his sentence at Evin prison. Prison authorities delayed sending Abtin to a hospital and allowing him a medical furlough to be treated under his family’s supervision in a specialist hospital as his condition rapidly deteriorated.
The three writers have faced investigations by the Ministry of Intelligence since 2015, as part of its efforts to stamp out dissent. They were detained in January 2019, when they were subjected to charges of colluding to “commit acts against national security” and “encouraging women to commit corruption and prostitution.” In May 2019, they were each convicted to six years in prison: five years for “colluding against national security” and one year for “propaganda.” They were conditionally released while they appealed their conviction, but those convictions were upheld in December 2019. Only Bajan succeeded in receiving a reduced sentence of three-and-a-half years, because he had no previous charges against him. All three were summoned to begin their sentences in September 2020, even as the COVID-19 pandemic was ravaging Iranian prisons.
PEN AMERICA ADVOCACY
January 7, 2022: PEN America leads a joint letter with 18 other free expression and human rights organizations calling on the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei, to unconditionally release Baktash Abtin from his imprisonment and release all those unjustly detained for their writing and free expression.
January 4, 2022: PEN America raises an urgent call of alarm regarding the condition of Baktash Abtin, following news that he had been placed into a medically-induced coma on January 1 as he fights COVID-19 complications in hospital, saying that his life is “hanging in the balance.”
December 9, 2021: PEN America renews calls to release Baktash Abtin, following confirmation that he has contracted COVID-19 while imprisoned at Evin prison. This is the second time Abtin has had COVID-like symptoms since his imprisonment in late September 2020, and fellow honoree and prisoner Keyvan Bajan is also currently experiencing flu-like symptoms but has not yet been moved to hospital.
December 4, 2021: On the Day Against Censorship, PEN America and PEN Sydney issue an urgent joint call to release writer-translator Arash Ganji and 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honorees Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi. The Iranian Writers Association (IWA) designated December 4 as the Day Against Censorship in 2008 to commemorate the abduction and murder in 1998 of two of their members, Mohammed Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh.
November 15, 2021: On the 40th anniversary of the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, PEN America convenes formerly imprisoned writers, their family members, and advocates for a panel discussion on the importance of solidarity with imprisoned writers; and prominent authors Azar Nafisi and Marie Arana give special remarks. PEN America trustee Marie Arana reads a letter from Evin prison written by Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi in acceptance of the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.
September 27, 2021: On the one-year anniversary of the enforcement of Abtin, Bajan, and Khandan Mahabadi’s prison sentence at Tehran’s Evin Prison, PEN America launches a petition and open letter calling on President Ebrahim Raisi to “end the unjust imprisonments of Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi, and to release all those jailed in Iran for exercising their freedom to write.” Award-winning creatives and literary luminaries—including Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, and Behrouz Boochani—sign onto the letter, expressing their solidarity with and support of Abtin, Bajan, and Khandan Mahabadi.
September 16, 2021: PEN America announces that Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi would receive the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, which will be presented on October 5 at PEN America’s Literary Gala, to be held at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. In bestowing the award, PEN America’s Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel said:
“Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi are embodiments of the spirit that animates our work at PEN America. They are writers who are called not only to offer prose and ideas on a page, but to live fearlessly—and sacrifice immensely in service of the liberties that underpin free thought, art, culture, and creativity. By taking up the mantle of leadership within Iran’s literary community, they have served as beacons for countless authors and thinkers whose ability to imagine, push boundaries, and challenge repression under the most dangerous conditions is fed by the knowledge that they do not stand alone. The Iranian government’s targeting of these three lions of Iran’s writing community, men whose only weapon is their intellect, marks the moral bankruptcy of a regime that is so afraid for its own survival that it has resorted to a futile effort to stamp out independent thought.”
October 5, 2020: PEN America decries the enforced imprisonment of Abtin, Bajan, and Khandan Mahabadi in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, calling for their immediate release along with other political prisoners particularly at high risk of contracting the virus.
Since the 1979 Revolution, dissenting opinions and freedom of expression have been severely restricted in Iran. The Iranian Writers Association (IWA) is the 1993 revival of a 10,000-member-strong group of the same name founded in 1968 and banned shortly after the Iranian Revolution in 1981. Its former leadership was arrested and hundreds of its members were killed during mass executions in 1986. A group of thirty writers helped revive the organization in the 1990s as censorship grew under Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidency. The Iranian government has taken a harsh stance against the IWA since its revival, using persecution, harassment, and even targeted murders to silence its dissident voice.
The motivations for Abtin, Bajan, and Khandan Mahabadi’s current imprisonment stem from their profiles as writers and creatives, their advocacy for free expression in Iran, and their leadership of and activities with the IWA. Khandan Mahabadi was first arrested in 1981 and Bajan has faced interrogations since 2005. In 2013, Abtin and Khandan Mahabadi were charged with “propaganda against the state” by the Culture and Media Court for disseminating flyers about the IWA. Khandan Mahabadi and Abtin were officially elected to the IWA board in 2014. During this period, they faced home raids, investigations, and harassment. Abtin was arrested in 2016 and again charged with “propaganda” for posting a photo on social media documenting police abuse of his colleague Mazdak Zarafshan (son of IWA member and 2004 PEN/ Freedom to Write honoree Nasser Zarafshan) while Zarafshan was attending a memorial marking the anniversary of the “chain murders” of dissident Iranian writers and poets in the 1990s.
Abtin, Bajan, and Khandan Mahabadi have suffered cruel medical neglect since their sentences began in September 2020, with devastating consequences for their health. Abtin and Khandan Mahabadi contracted COVID-19 in prison; Abtin’s complications included a severe bout of pneumonia, for which he was granted a brief trip to the hospital. He was forced to return to prison before his symptoms had subsided.
The writers have also been barred from proper medical treatment for ongoing health issues. Khandan Mahabadi suffers from hypertension and osteoarthritis in his neck and Bajan from thyroid disease. Abtin was denied treatment for a testicular mass for several months. When he was finally taken to the hospital in July 2021, authorities chained him to the hospital bed. News reports claimed that he was returned to prison without any tests having been conducted. Despite his continued and worsening medical condition, Abtin has been summoned for an additional investigation for public statements related to medical neglect in Evin prison, including the spread of COVID-19. On January 8, 2022, Baktash Abtin died in a Tehran hospital after battling COVID-19 contracted during his sentence at Evin prison. Prison authorities delayed sending Abtin to a hospital and allowing him a medical furlough to be treated under his family’s supervision in a specialist hospital as his condition rapidly deteriorated.
Baktash Abtin was a celebrated Iranian poet, screenwriter, filmmaker, and board member of the IWA. Abtin began writing poetry after he graduated from high school. Abtin’s early interest in poetry and literature evolved into a focus on cinema later in his career. He first ventured into filmmaking after writing a script and acting in a television movie. A fierce critic of the Iranian regime, he has published five books of poetry and released two documentaries. Despite garnering accolades around the globe, Abtin’s books and films have been banned in Iran for the last six years. On January 8, 2022, at the age of 47, Abtin died while serving his prison sentence.
Keyvan Bajan is a novelist, journalist, and former board member of the IWA, who recently finished his trustee term with the group. He has published works on Iran’s oral history and edited a collection of famous novelist Ahmad Mahmoud’s interviews and notes. Bajan writes for some of the most prominent literary and cultural magazines in Iran, including Adineh and KELK, a prominent monthly cultural magazine on Iranian studies. Bajan has also written for newspapers, weeklies, and other publications including Sahrgh and Hamshahri.
Reza Khandan Mahabadi is an author, literary critic, popular culture researcher, and a board member of the IWA. Khandan Mahabadi started his studies of fiction writing children’s literature in 1978, when he published a collection of children’s stories. A prolific writer and critic of the Iranian government, he has stated that he has “always been caught up with censorship, exclusion, and elimination” throughout his career. He is the editor of a 19-volume, encyclopedic collection of Iranian fiction, and later edited My Beloved Stories, another multi-volume book of selected short stories from Iran written in the past 80 years. Khandan Mahabadi has himself written a collection of short fiction entitled The Solitaries.
January 8, 2022: Baktash Abtin dies in Sasan hospital in Tehran after battling COVID-19, which he contracted during his sentence at Evin prison, for over a month. Reza Khandan Mahabadi, who continues to serve his six-year sentence, remains on a brief medical furlough as he also recovers from COVID-19, contracted while imprisoned at Evin.
January 1, 2022: Baktash Abtin is placed in a medically-induced coma, his condition deteriorating after contracting COVID-19 in prison for a second time, as the Iranian government repeatedly denied him access to proper medical treatment, ignoring his underlying conditions, delaying hospitalization, and even shackling him to a bed.
December 8, 2021: Baktash Abtin is transferred from Evin prison to Taleghani Hospital due to fever, severe pain, and general weakness. Additionally, Keyvan Bajan has shown flu-like symptoms while imprisoned at Evin. An unnamed political prisoner reported to IranWire that there is a current outbreak of coronavirus at Evin prison and lack of sufficient medical care.
Mid-July 2021: Abtin is transferred to Tajrish Martyrs’ Hospital due to severe testicular pain—a doctor had identified a mass in the area four months earlier, but he had been denied hospital care. Despite his continued and worsening medical condition, Abtin is summoned for an additional investigation about his public statements related to medical neglect in Evin prison, including the spread of COVID-19.
April 13, 2021: Abtin continues to self-quarantine in Evin prison’s Husseinieh, a site within the prison for religious ceremonies, though he is no longer suffering from constant coughs and a temperature.
April 10, 2021: Abtin is ordered to be transferred back to the public ward in Evin prison from the prison clinic, a decision to which he objects in fear of placing his fellow inmates at risk of contracting COVID-19.
April 4, 2021: Abtin is transferred to the clinic in Evin prison, as he suffers from pneumonia possibly linked to COVID-19.
February 9, 2021: Prison officials refuse to take Bajan to the hospital and deny him necessary medical treatment. Bajan suffers from thyroid disease.
January 19, 2021: Prison officials refuse to take Khandan Mahabadi to the hospital and deny him necessary medical treatment. Khandan Mahabadi suffers from hypertension and osteoarthritis in his neck.
September 27, 2020: Abtin, Bajan, and Khandan Mahabadi are transferred to Evin prison to start their sentences for colluding against national security and spreading propaganda. Abtin and Khandan Mahabadi are serving six-year sentences, while Bajan is serving a sentence of three-and-a-half years.
June 2020: Khandan Mahabadi and Abtin are interviewed by PEN Sydney President Mark Isaacs about their impending sentences and imprisonments.
May 16, 2019: A statement from the Iranian Writers Association (IWA) announces that Khandan Mahabadi, Abtin, and Bajan were convicted and sentenced to prison on May 15. Each writer receives a six-year sentence: five years for “colluding against national security” and one year for “spreading propaganda” against the government. The writers remain free while their appeal is pending.
April 27 and 28, 2019: Abtin, Bajan, and Khandan Mahabadi stand for the last days of their trial at Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court in Tehran. On April 28, Abtin posts a video to Instagram, vowing not to back down and “surrender to injustice.” He tells followers, “The security forces are putting pressure on me and my IWA friends but I want to assure you that they will never weaken our firm determination… to defend freedom of speech and thought.”
January 27 and 28, 2019: Abtin, Khandan Mahabadi, and Bajan are successively released conditionally after they each post their ten billion Rial bail.
January 22, 2019: Abtin, Bajan, and Khandan Mahabadi appear for a hearing before Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court during which the three writers are briefed on the indictment against them. However, the judge denies the three their right to be represented by a lawyer; the three had procured prominent attorney and writer Nasser Zarafshan (father of Mazdak Zarafshan and also an IWA member). The writers refuse to defend themselves, and the judge orders their release on bail, set at the unaffordable amount of ten billion Rial (approximately $240,000) for each individual. The judge reportedly raised their bail from one to ten billion Rial following their request to be represented by lawyer Zarafshan.
June 2018: Abtin is sentenced to three months of community service and a fine of 50 million Rial (approximately $1,100) for the photo he posted of Zarafshan on Instagram.
2016: Abtin is arrested and again charged with “propaganda” for posting a photo on social media of his colleague Mazdak Zarafshan with a black eye after security forces beat Zarafshan while attending a memorial for the murders of dissident writers and poets in the 1990s. These authorities forcibly dispersed the event.
2014: Khandan Mahabadi and Abtin are elected to the board of the IWA.
2013: Abtin and Khandan Mahabadi are charged with “propaganda against the state” for publishing newsletters and flyers about the Iranian Writers Association (IWA).
In Their Words
“The abhorrent phenomenon of censorship enslaves the beautiful and tender emotions of anyone including writers and artists who are free from the shackles of obligatory regulations and limitations. Censorship kills creativity and all the different ways human beings express their existence and lives in order to create beauty. It makes everything look monotonous.” — Reza Khandan Mahabadi, from his Statement on the Day Against Censorship, December 4
“Black means night
and a dark alley means
your bright voice after we say goodbye
whether I will be or not
my dreams will
kiss you in that alley!
White means hospital
and the thin blades of the fan mean
the world spins around me
You are not here so I
could wash the feet of the night
and wrapped in a white blanket, I
pretend to be dead”
— Baktash Abtin, “Black Means Night” (سياه يعنى شب), translation by Parisa Saranj
“It seems that the writer, poet or even the songwriter must be intellectuals just as our classic poets once were, which is why they were called hakim or sage. They truly understood the importance of indigenous culture and people’s stories.” — interview with Keyvan Bajan, translation by Parisa Saranj
Free Expression in Iran
Iran is among the world’s most restrictive countries for freedom of expression. While the human rights situation in Iran has been dire for decades, the state of freedom of expression and respect for fundamental rights in the country has deteriorated even further in recent years. Iran holds the fourth-highest number of writers and intellectuals in prison globally, according to PEN America’s 2020 Freedom to Write Index. Dozens of journalists are currently imprisoned on politically-motivated charges in Iran alongside scores of other writers, bloggers, artists, human rights defenders, and other political prisoners. Despite promises of expanded freedoms, Hassan Rouhani’s presidency was marked by intensified repression and arbitrary political restrictions—preventing Iranians from having a voice in how they are governed. And in August, Ebrahim Raisi became the country’s new president, after a June election in which all opposition candidates had been disqualified. Raisi is notorious for his past role in human rights abuses, having been accused of involvement in mass killings of political prisoners in the 1980s. Iran remains notorious for a judicial system completely lacking in transparency, which is guilty of numerous arbitrary arrests and one of the world’s highest rates of capital punishment. Hundreds of political prisoners are languishing behind bars during the COVID-19 pandemic as authorities withhold critical care and medical attention, putting their lives in great danger and sometimes leading to death. The Iranian government has also been engaged in the targeting and transnational kidnapping of dissidents, writers, and journalists outside the country, and the harassment of family members inside the country.