(New York, NY) – Earlier this week, Iranian officials reportedly arrested three relatives of journalist, author, and women’s rights activist Masih Alinejad. PEN America said the arrests of Alireza Alinejad, Hadi Lotfi, and Leila Lotfi are likely retaliatory against Alinejad for her work calling for women’s rights and an alarming and reprehensible attack on free expression.

“The arrest and detention of three of Masih Alinejad’s family members is clearly direct retribution for her work advocating for women’s liberty and a deplorable attempt to intimidate her into silence by targeting her family. This intimidation-by-proxy is a classic autocratic tactic for threatening activists even when they are based outside the country or in exile,” said Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “PEN America calls for the Iranian government to immediately release Alinejad’s family members, and to reject employing such unconscionable tactics in the future.”

Masih Alinejad is a well-known journalist and author based in New York who currently works as a presenter and producer for the Voice of America Persian service. A staunch advocate for women’s rights, she has received widespread attention for founding “White Wednesdays” online campaign, calling for an end to policies requiring women to wear the hijab. This campaign has won Alinejad both the admiration of women and girls in Iran and internationally, but also the ire of Iran’s government. In July, Iranian officials said sending images to the campaign could result in up to ten years in prison.

On the night of Tuesday, September 24, Islamic Republic Intelligence Ministry agents arrested Alireza Alinejad, Masih’s brother, and Hadi and Leila Lotfi, brother and sister of her ex-husband, from their homes. Alireza Alinejad was reportedly handcuffed and blindfolded before being taken away, while Hadi and Leila Lotfi were interrogated overnight. Hadi has reportedly been released, although he has been banned from leaving the city and may face further questioning. Both Alireza Alinejad and Leila Lotfi are still detained in undisclosed locations.

The Iranian government’s attempt to pressure a vocal writer and advocate for women’s rights into silence by attacking her relatives is just one more iteration of a widespread crackdown on activists, journalists, and free expression in the country. In May, Iranian writer, human rights lawyer, and 2011 PEN/Freedom to Write Award honoree Nasrin Sotoudeh was sentenced to an egregious total of 38 years in prison and 148 lashes for spurious charges. In June, prominent journalist and human rights defender Narges Mohammadi, who had been serving a prison sentence since 2011, faced harrowing health concerns and was denied adequate medical care.

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC here.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Stephen Fee, Director of Communications, sfee@pen.org, +1 202 309 8892