An earlier version of this press release mistakenly stated that Saman Yasin was sentenced to death on October 29 for “enmity against God.” On October 29, Yasin was informed that he was charged with “enmity against God,” a crime that carries a death sentence.

(NEW YORK)—The Iranian government is accelerating its repression of free speech and assembly in response to national protests, with a growing number of arrests and sentencing of writers and creative artists, many of them well-known voices of dissent, including blogger Hossein Ronaghi, and rappers Toomaj Salehi and Saman Yasin. Iran has been engulfed by widespread protests since the death of Mahsa (Jhina) Amin on September 16.

“The Iranian government is putting writers’ lives at severe risk through its brazen violation of basic human rights that include systematic abuse and torture in custody, coupled with fast-tracked and harsh sentences solely for exercising the right to free expression,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s director of Free Expression at Risk Programs. “We are deeply concerned for these individuals’ health and safety, and for dozens of other writers held in Iran’s jails and facing either overt threats or medical neglect. We support the recent call of the UN human rights experts for the immediate establishment of an independent mechanism with investigation, reporting, and accountability functions to address and put a stop to these abuses.”

Among the most urgent cases is blogger Hossein Ronaghi, who has been detained in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison since September 24 and has been undertaking a hunger strike for the past 50 days. The Voice of America Farsi service spoke with Hossein Ronaghi’s brother on Friday and reported that his condition has become grave because he has not had access to necessary medications for kidney disease, prostrate or bladder inflammation, or ulcers. This, along with his ongoing hunger strike, and two broken legs while in custody, has resulted in him vomiting blood continually. Without medical attention, it is feared he could suffer a stroke or heart attack.

On November 1, after several previous denials for visitation, his parents were finally permitted to visit Ronaghi. His brother, reported Ronaghi’s health has severely deteriorated; he has lost at least 40 pounds and sustained injuries (including 2 broken legs) from beatings and torture during interrogations. Ronaghi’s father stated that his kidney function has significantly deteriorated; Ronaghi had already lost one of his kidneys from torture during a previous politically-motivated imprisonment. On November 5, his father had a heart attack while protesting outside of Evin prison, and several days later, Ronaghi’s brother tweeted that a prosecutor  threatened Ronaghi, saying, “We will kill you too, like Baktash Abtin,” referencing the imprisoned Iranian poet, filmmaker, and 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award recipient who died of COVID-19 in January 2022 as a result of medical neglect while he was in prison.

Saman Yasin, a Kurdish rapper, was charged with “enmity against God,” a crime that carries the death sentence, in connection with his dissident views on October 29. Yasin writes songs with political themes, including about unemployment and government oppression, and has also supported the Mahsa (Jhina) Amini protests. Yasin was arrested on October 2 in a home raid, and has been tortured during his detention. 

On October 30, rapper Toomaj Salehi was arrested. Salehi is well-known for his incisive lyrics and has long made music with explicitly political themes. He was detained in 2021 and subjected to prolonged harassment by the authorities prior to the protests responding to Amini’s death. In addition to releasing songs about the protests, he actively participated in protests and posted videos of himself on social media during the events. On November 2, an  Iranian state TV-affiliated Telegram account posted a short video of an individual purporting to be the rapper, blindfolded and kneeling minutes after arrest, apparently confessing. However, another Iranian rapper questioned whether the person in the video was in fact Salehi. Representatives of Salehi confirm that he is being tortured and held in solitary confinement, and that family visitation rights are being denied.

On November 4, rapper Emad Ghavidel was conditionally released on bail following his arrest for “inciting the youth to chaos” on October 26. Ghavidel is well-known in his hometown Rasht for writing songs critical of Iran’s clerics. Following his release, he wrote on Instagram that he was beaten several times in jail while authorities asked him “are you an artist?”. Other recently arrested writers and artists who currently remain in detention and subject to abuse include: Atefeh Chaharmahalian, Saeed Heleichi, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, and Behrouz Yasemi.

In PEN America’s 2021 Freedom to Write Index—an annual count of imprisoned writers worldwide—Iran is one of the top five global jailers of writers, with at least 21 jailed during 2021 for their free expression. In the past weeks, numerous writers and dissident voices have been detained in Iran as protests have swelled against long-standing constraints on free expression, joining those already in prison such as Narges Mohammadi, the Baha’i poet Mahvash Sabet, and Iranian Writers’ Association members Reza Khandan Mahabadi, Arash Ganji, and Keyvan Mohtadi.

More about PEN America’s work on advocating for free expression and individual writers in Iran can be found here. PEN America also 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