(New York, NY) — On Saturday, Iranian musician Mehdi Rajabian is expected to appear in court after being arrested for allegedly “encouraging prostitution” with his newest album. PEN America and English PEN condemn the arrest as an arbitrary and politically-motivated attempt to silence Rajabian as a musician, and call for the charges against him to be dropped.

Rajabian was arrested in early August in the city of Sari and briefly detained in connection with his latest musical projects. While detained, Rajabian was reportedly told by a judge that the project “encouraged prostitution.” While the basis for this allegation is unclear, it appears to relate to the release of a dance performance inspired by his album Middle Eastern and his work with female artists—whose right to sing in public is subject to numerous restrictions under Iranian law—on the album he is currently producing. Rajabian was later released, but it remains unclear if he has been formally charged or if he will be charged at his upcoming hearing.

 “This is not the first time that the Iranian government has targeted Mehdi Rajabian for his work,” said Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “The Iranian government has not been fully transparent about what charges he now faces, but what is clear is that Rajabian is again being treated as a criminal simply for being a socially-conscious musician. Indeed, while the Iranian authorities should clarify what potential charges Mehdi faces, any effort to criminalize Rajabian’s music is an indefensible attack on his freedom of artistic expression. We call upon the arresting authorities to immediately drop these spurious charges and to allow Rajabian to make his music in peace.”

In October 2013, Rajabian, his brother Hossein, and Yousef Emadi were arrested in connection with an underground music-sharing website that the three co-founded and that distributed music authorities deemed “offensive.” They began serving three-year sentences on June 5, 2016, during which they reportedly endured torture and solitary confinement. On June 22, 2017, they were conditionally released, and Rajabian’s sentence was suspended, meaning that he is at continued risk of being re-imprisoned under his original charges.

The right to free expression and artistic freedom is severely restricted and punished in Iran, and artists face wide-ranging risks, especially when working on issues disfavored by the Iranian government, such as women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights. In Iran, singers and dancers can be prosecuted for vaguely-defined offenses such as “indecency” or “immorality.” Women vocalists in particular face countless restrictions, generally needing permission to sing publicly and often only being able to perform before all-female audiences.

According to PEN America’s inaugural Freedom to Write Index, Iran ranked fourth worldwide in terms of the number of writers and public intellectuals in jail in 2019, with 14 behind bars during the year. Last month, Nasrin Soutodeh, a renowned Iranian writer, human rights lawyer, and activist who is serving a 38-year sentence for spurious national security charges, began a hunger strike in Tehran’s Evin prison to protest conditions in Iranian prisons during the COVID-19 pandemic and call for the release of fellow political prisoners. She is reportedly in critical condition.

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection, 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.