(NEW YORK)– With anti-government protests erupting across Iran and writers and dissident voices being detained, PEN America today called for the release of Iranian writer Reza Khandan Mahabadi on the second anniversary of his wrongful imprisonment. PEN America also urged the unconditional release of every writer and artist either imprisoned long-term or detained recently. Mahabadi, a member of the Iranian Writers’ Association and winner of the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award, was sent to prison exactly two years ago, along with the poet and filmmaker Baktash Abtin, who died this past January from medical neglect after falling ill with Covid 19, and Keyvan Bajan, who was released on parole in March 2022.

“This case, emblematic of a broader crackdown on the IWA–which has consistently championed the essential right to free expression for all Iranians–is among the most egregious of the Islamic Republic’s recent assaults on civil society and dissident voices,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America. “We call for Reza Khandan Mahabadi and other members of the IWA who remain behind bars to be released, and for the Iranian authorities to cease their ongoing harassment of the group.”

At the time of the trio’s imprisonment, more than one thousand activists and intellectuals signed a letter condemning their sentencing and jailing. On the first anniversary of the imprisonment, at the time that the PEN/Barbey Award was announced, dozens of prominent international writers and artists signed a letter by PEN America calling for the writers’ release. Abtin, a filmmaker and poet, died as a direct result of prison authorities’ neglect of his medical conditions and  symptoms of COVID-19. Bajan and Mahabadi also faced neglect after contracting COVID-19 in Evin prison. Mahabadi was granted a brief medical leave after he contracted COVID-19 in prison but was sent back to prison months later while he was still recuperating from the long-term effects of the disease. Meanwhile, translator, writer, and IWA member Arash Ganji was imprisoned in October 2021 to begin an 11-year sentence on spurious national security charges. His medical conditions have been neglected over the course of his imprisonment. At the end of August 2022, he was arbitrarily transferred to Rajaee-Shahr prison. 

Iran is among the top five countries in PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, which provides an annual count of jailed writers worldwide. Writers in Iran are detained, sentenced and imprisoned arbitrarily while authorities use 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. The Iran-based Iranian Writers’ Association, which has consistently stood up to condemn state censorship, has been banned since the 1980s, which means members are viewed as aiming “to disrupt national security,” as defined by Article 499 of the Iranian Penal Code. Writers who publish their work, post online, or even translate books are jailed on the basis of spreading “propaganda against the state.” The arbitrary judicial process leaves many writers uncertain about what exactly prompted their arrest, resulting in fear and silencing.

In the past week, numerous writers and dissident voices have been detained in Iran as protests have swelled against long-standing constraints on free expression. More about PEN America’s work on Iran can be found here.