June Featured Case: Mehdi and Hossein Rajabian
Iranian filmmakers Mehdi and Hossein Rajabian were arrested in October 2013 in connection with Barg Music, the underground music-sharing site they cofounded. During a three-minute trial in May 2015, they were fined 20 million RR ($6000) and sentenced to six years in prison for distributing music with provocative lyrics that were deemed to constitute “propaganda against the state.” After an international outcry, the sentence was reduced to six years imprisonment with three years suspended.
Both brothers had suffered from medical issues prior to their arrest—Mehdi from multiple sclerosis (MS), and Hossein from kidney problems—but these issues were exacerbated by beatings and torture endured while in Tehran’s Evin prison. Hossein began to have seizures after his beating, while Mehdi’s MS worsened. To protest their conditions, the brothers refused medical treatment and began a hunger strike, then were separated and placed in solitary confinement as punishment. According to one report, Mehdi was punched in the stomach by a prison doctor, and on two occasions has coughed up blood. Though he is finally receiving some medical treatment, family members have described his condition as critical.
Since their imprisonment, the Rajabian brothers have continued to communicate with the international community. In an open letter posted in October 2016, they wrote, “We call on all musicians around the world to condemn these abuses with a worthy response. Do not forget us in these suffocating times … There’s no greater suffering than to be forgotten.” On April 4th Mehdi and Hossein returned to Evin prison after a seven-day leave. In a photo on Mehdi’s Instagram on April 6th, the artist stated plainly, “Detention resumes. Goodbye.”
Mehdi and Hossein are both accomplished artists. Mehdi recently finished an album entitled History of Iran Narrated by Setar, and Hossein has completed a featured film entitled “The Upside-Down Triangle,” which concerns a woman’s right to divorce in Iran. Barg Music was launched in 2007 and has since brought exposure to alternative musicians around the country.
Artistic freedom has come under sustained assault in Iran, even after the first election of Hassan Rouhani, who was widely perceived as a moderate. Artist and political activist Atena Farghadani was arrested in August 2014 for drawing a cartoon that portrayed lawmakers as animals. Following her release on bail, she was arrested again for creating “propaganda against the regime,” leading to an eighteen-month sentence that was suspended a month later. Famed Iranian poet Sepideh Jodeyri was sentenced to death not long after she released a Farsi translation of the graphic novel Blue is the Warmest Color, which focused on a relationship between two women. She fled the country and reached asylum in Prague.
Iran’s neglect of prisoners with medical needs is well established and has brought several writers and artists close to death before. Independent journalist and activist Narges Mohammadi was arrested while campaigning against the death penalty in Iran. Despite suffering from a neurological disorder that causes seizures, she was returned to prison against doctors’ medical advice. She was only admitted to a hospital after being released on bail. PEN received reports that Siamak Pourzand, a deceased journalist and film critic, suffered from one or more heart attacks during his time in detention, then was denied sufficient medical attention.
The international human rights community has continued to protest the imprisonment of dissidents in Iran, resulting in numerous suspended sentences and releases. The Rajabian brothers’ sentence, originally set for six years, was reduced to three years after an appeal. These successes have been replicated in other cases as well: Atena Earghadani was released from prison only a month after her sentence, and human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh was freed the night before President Hassan Rouhani’s first trip to the United States.
At a time of increasing uncertainty for the future of Iran, it is imperative that writers act out on dissidents’ behalf. Join PEN America in advocating for the immediate release of the Rajabian brothers and all other artists at risk in Iran.