(New York, NY) — After news that 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honoree Baktash Abtin has been hospitalized and tested positive with COVID-19, PEN America called today for his immediate release and to free all Iranian writers being unjustly held in detention. 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 signs, but has not yet been moved to hospital. 

“We urgently demand Abtin’s immediate release, so that he may receive the medical care he needs,” said Summer Lopez, PEN America’s senior director of free expression programs. “This moment makes starkly clear the extreme dangers posed to Abtin and his fellow writers unjustly detained in Iran’s prisons. The egregious violation of their rights must end and Abtin and all those unjustly behind bars must be immediately and unconditionally released.” 

Since September 2020, Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi have been imprisoned at Tehran’s Evin prison in relation to a Ministry of Intelligence investigation into their written works and involvement with the Iranian Writers Association (IWA). Following a trial and appeal marred with legal issues, each was convicted of “colluding against national security” and “spreading propaganda” and sentenced to a collective 15-and-a-half years in prison. Nearly 90 prominent writers, artists, and activists have signed a PEN America letter calling for the release of the three Freedom to Write awardees, including Meryl Streep, Khaled Hosseini, Jonathan Franzen, Sandra Cisneros, and Margaret Atwood. 

A former secretary of the IWA, Arash Ganji, was imprisoned in late October on multiple spurious national security charges related to his translation of a book about a Kurdish-led uprising in northern Syria. Ganji is also currently serving a mandatory minimum of five years of his 11-year sentence at Evin prison. 

The state of freedom of expression and respect for human rights in Iran has continued to deteriorate in recent years, with frequent suppression of writers through tactics of legal prosecution, harassment, and even targeted murders intended to silence critical perspectives. According to PEN America’s 2020 Freedom to Write Index, Iran jailed the fourth-highest number of writers and intellectuals globally. PEN America continues to advocate on behalf of a number of individuals sentenced or imprisoned for their expression, including writers, journalists, and activists.