(NEW YORK)—PEN America is deeply concerned by reports of multiple arbitrary arrests of writers, creative artists, and former political prisoners in Iran in recent weeks—including blogger Hossein Ronaghi and poet Atefeh Chaharmahalian—in the widespread repression of protesters supporting women’s rights and free expression, following the death of Mahsa (Jhina) Amini on September 16.  

The government’s targeted arrests of writers, critics, and journalists is part of a broad strategy seeking to control publishing, online speech, and the spread and exchange of information within and outside of Iran. Two weeks before the death of Mahsa Amini, Iranian authorities quietly passed three articles of the controversial Internet User Protection Bill, restricting access to and use of the internet even further despite “a high degree of opposition.” While Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube have been banned in Iran for years, access to Instagram and WhatsApp was restricted across all major internet providers on September 21. In the following weeks, Netblocks documented internet disruptions in Zahedan, Sistan, Baluchestan, and Kurdistan Province. Mobile operators have also largely been shut down.

“We are deeply concerned by the Iranian government’s forceful repression of free expression in response to this movement for democracy and human rights, and we condemn the targeted arrests of writers and other critical and dissenting voices,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs. “Columnists, poets, singers, and authors have been arbitrarily detained, with some writers and former political prisoners being preemptively jailed for no reason other than to prevent them from speaking publicly.”  

The Iranian authorities have arrested a growing number of writers and artists, including individuals who have been jailed previously, since the protests began over a month ago. Among these are:

  • Literary writer Mansoureh Mousavi, who was arrested on September 20 for undisclosed reasons. Security forces confiscated her writing and devices from her home at the time of her arrest.
  • Blogger and opinion writer Hossein Ronaghi, who turned himself into prison on September 24 after he escaped a brief arrest two days prior following security forces’ violent assault on him while giving an interview. Ronaghi is a former political prisoner who spent six years in prison and was most recently detained in February 2022.
  • Literary writer Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, who was arrested on September 26 at her home and physically assaulted during the arrest; security forces also confiscated her belongings. Iraee was later charged with “assembly and collusion, as well as propaganda against the state” for her social media activities. Iraee is a former political prisoner who was released from Amol prison in May 2022.
  • Poet Mona Borzouei, who was arrested on September 28 after she posted a video of herself reciting a poem in support of the protests. She was released from state custody after over a week in jail.
  • Popular musician Shervin Hajipour, who was arrested on September 29 after his protest song, “Baraye,” went viral and became an anthem for the uprising in Iran. He was released on October 5.
  • Poet and former Iranian Writers’ Association board member Atefeh Chaharmahalian, who was arrested on October 3 and later known to be jailed in Ward 209 of Evin prison.
  • Poet Behrouz Yasemi, who was arrested on October 18 at his workplace and transferred to Evin prison shortly after posting a video of himself reciting a poem about Mahsa (Jhina) Amini on his Instagram page.
  • Poet and translator Saeed Heleichi, who was arrested on October 19 at his father’s home. Heleichi had been summoned in April and made to sign a commitment “to not publish the truth” after posting pictures of environmental degradation in Ahvaz with a fragment of a poem by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish.

Karlekar added that PEN America was deeply alarmed by reports of abusive treatment and torture of prisoners. “We are incredibly concerned for the lives of all those in prisons across Iran, but especially those in the notorious Evin prison. We have received reports of torture and the denial of care following a fire in Evin on October 15, in which a number of inmates reportedly perished. We demand that Iranian authorities immediately cease the abusive treatment of prisoners and ensure that they have access to necessary medical care. We also call on prison authorities to give families access to basic information about their loved ones and allow them to visit. Additionally, we call on the United States and other democratic governments to support the recent call by 10 United Nations experts for the establishment of an independent investigative mechanism for Iran, and other measures of accountability.”

Jailed writer and activist Narges Mohammadi likened Evin to a battlefield, with explosions, gunshots, and fire, and people detained at Evin have reported medical abuse and neglect, which is a serious concern as a number of writers suffer from ongoing health issues that have worsened while being jailed. In one of the most urgent cases, Hossein Ronaghi, who already lost a kidney after being tortured in a previous round of incarceration at Evin, is being denied access to medical care and to his family. His mother tweeted on October 7 that she had not been permitted to see him, and his brother tweeted on October 14 that Ronaghi is in poor health, suffers from high blood pressure, and is being denied access to his medication. Reports indicate Ronaghi was tortured and that both of his legs were broken during multiple rounds of interrogations. Meanwhile, other writers, including Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee and 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honoree Reza Khandan Mahabadi have been transferred to other prisons. Khandan Mahabadi was transferred from Evin to the more remote Rajai Shahr prison on October 13; several dozen political prisoners were also moved there after the Evin prison fire. Iraee was transferred on October 10 from Qarchak prison and taken to an unconfirmed location.

Iran is one of the top five jailers of writers globally in PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index 2021, which provides an annual count of imprisoned writers worldwide. Writers in Iran are harrassed, detained, and imprisoned arbitrarily while authorities use various extralegal tactics, including surveillance and threats, to punish and retaliate against them, and to suppress free expression in literary, artistic, and public spaces in and outside of the country. Over the past month, there has been a surge in high-profile cases of writers and other creative voices being detained in light of the massive rounds of protests across the country responding to the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini who had been arrested and beaten by the Guidance Patrol for wearing an “improper” hijab.

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