(NEW YORK) – Leaked documents revealing an Iranian secret committee to target artists and other cultural and creative figures during mass demonstrations prove the “deliberate and systemic” assault on free expression, PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection said today.

In response to the revelation from the BBC Persian service, PEN America called on the Independent International Fact-finding Mission on the Islamic Republic of Iran to investigate the emerging evidence of grave violations of freedom of expression.

“The leaked documents prove the deliberate and systematic nature of the Iranian regime’s attacks on freedom of expression, amounting to major human rights violations under international law. The Minister of Culture himself has taken on a policing role of artists and cultural workers, forcing them into silence through intimidation and threat. PEN America and ARC have been calling the regime out for its systematic targeting of artists and writers since September 2022, and these documents serve as unequivocal proof that this targeting is deliberate and originates at the highest levels of the Iranian government,” said Julie Trebault, director of PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC). “We urge the UN Fact Finding Mission to use this evidence and investigate the coordinated policy by the regime to silence dissident voices. The regime clearly fears the power artists and writers hold in society, especially in times of social unrest and mobilization.”

The permanent ‘Celebrities Committee,’ as revealed by the leaked letters, was established as early as September 2022—only six days after the protests erupted across the country. Mandated to investigate more than 141 artists, singers, and media personalities, the Committee has enforced fines, travel bans, and mass arrests over the past seven months on targeted artists and public figures due to their support of the protests. It is chaired by the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Mohammad Mehdi Esmaili, who recently demanded that dissident artists must “express remorse” in order to be removed from the government’s blacklist and permitted to resume their creative work. Esmaili has been intensifying actions against dissident artists and public figures who defied the government following the death of 22-year old Mahsa Amini in state custody last September.

Dozens of Iranian writers, musicians, filmmakers, and actors were intimidated, banned from work, arrested and jailed either for taking part in acts of protest or merely supporting the protesters and charged with dubious charges including propaganda against the state,” mohrabeh or “war against God,” which potentially carry the death penalty. PEN America continues to call for the release of jailed artists, writers and creatives among them rappers including Toomaj Salehi and Saman Yasin, and literary writer Golrokh Ebrahimi who remain in jail with their fate unknown.

The Independent UN-Fact Finding Mission on Iran initiated its investigations earlier this year and has been increasingly engaging with civil society to collect, consolidate and analyze evidence of human rights violations committed by the Iranian authorities. In PEN America’s recently released 2022 Freedom to Write Index —an annual count of imprisoned writers worldwide, Iran placed second worldwide, recording the biggest increase in jailed over the previous year with more than 39 cases. The report found that Iran jailed more than one-third of the total number of women writers jailed worldwide, reflecting the authorities keenness to silence prominent voices in a largely women-led movement. More about PEN America’s work on Iran can be found here.

About the Artists at Risk Connection

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.

About PEN America

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. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057