(New York, NY) — PEN America is disturbed to learn of the incarceration of Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan-Mahabadi in Tehran’s Evin Prison. Not only is their imprisonment an unjust attack on free expression, but taking them into state custody at this time—when there have been dozens of recorded cases of COVID-19 in Iran’s jails, some of which have affected political prisoners—is a direct threat to their health and safety.

“Forcing Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan-Mahabadi behind bars while the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep through Iran’s prisons is not only a blatant and appalling violation of their right to free expression but is a human rights abuse of the most terrible nature: a direct threat to their lives and safety,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s director of Free Expression at Risk Programs. “The Iranian government should immediately release these three writers, and clear all spurious charges levied against them. Additionally, we continue to call for the release of all unjustly detained political prisoners, particularly those at high risk of contracting the virus.”

In May 2019, the three writers were convicted and sentenced to six years in prison for their writing, research, and membership in the Iranian Writers Association (IWA). After their convictions, Abtin, Bajan, and Khandan-Mahabadi all appealed the charges, but their conviction was upheld in December 2019, though Bajan’s sentence was reduced to three years. In March 2020, just as the coronavirus pandemic was overtaking Iran, all three were summoned to Evin Prison to begin their sentences. The three refused to report at the time due to the risk posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but have now been forced to comply. The IWA has long been targeted by Iranian authorities; in December 2019, IWA Secretary Arash Ganji was arrested at his home and temporarily detained in Evin Prison; he currently faces charges but has been freed on bail.

Iran’s prisons, particularly Evin Prison, are hotbeds of the COVID-19 pandemic. Leaked government letters have revealed dire conditions, and a failure to provide prisons and prisoners with the basic materials necessary to fight and contain the disease. In March, Iranian authorities temporarily freed 85,000 prisoners in response to the pandemic, but most political prisoners, including Nasrin Sotoudeh and Narges Mohammadi, remain behind bars. Mohammadi is believed to have contracted the disease, while Sotoudeh, also held in Evin Prison, recently suffered near-fatal health complications while on a 46-day hunger strike to protest prison conditions amid the pandemic.