(New York, NY) — The abrupt arrest of writers and translators Keyvan Mohtadi and Anisha Asadollahi is the latest targeted judicial attack on members of the historic and vital Iranian Writers Association (IWA), PEN America said today. 

“While the official justification for their arrest has not been announced, it is obvious that Iranian authorities have targeted Mohtadi and Asadollahi because of their vital contributions through writing, translation, and activism to the practice of free expression in Iran,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs. “In recent years the government has made it abundantly clear that the IWA’s persistent celebration of literature and condemnation of state censorship are not welcome, engaging in a pattern of harassment, arbitrary detention, and even egregious medical neglect in order to silence its members, several of whom are languishing behind bars this very minute. Writers and translators like Mohtadi and Asadollahi are prime targets due to their work to enable cross-cultural dialogue, build bridges between languages, and give voice to diverse forms of creative expression. Their ability to work and write freely must be upheld without condition or delay. We call on the Iranian government to immediately release Mohtadi, Asadollahi, and all other unjustly detained members of the IWA, and to halt its broader campaign to exact repressive authoritarian control over the freedom to write.” 

According to reports, on the afternoon of May 9 security forces raided the home of Mohtadi and Asadollahi, arresting them and detaining them at an unknown location. In the moments before their arrest, Mohtadi managed to film the security agents as they approached from the street, posting a video to his Instagram in which he can be heard saying, “they’ve come to arrest us.” So far, the reason for the couple’s arrest is unclear; no information has been made available about the reason for their detention, or whether any charges have been filed against them. Both Mohtadi and Asadollahi are writers, translators, and labor activists known for their criticism of the government and support for workers’ rights. Mohtadi, a member of the IWA, was previously detained for a short time in December 2018 along with other members of the Syndicate of Workers of Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company, and has reportedly been under tight security pressure ever since. Similarly, Asadollahi, who was working as an English teacher prior to her latest arrest, has also been targeted for her labor activism in the past, having been detained twice in 2019, subsequently facing heightened surveillance.

Dissenting opinions are severely restricted in Iran, which remains one of the world’s most oppressive countries for freedom of expression. Throughout the past year, the government’s crackdown on prominent critical voices and cultural spaces continued through the use of censorship, harassment, and detentions; for the third year in a row, Iran held the fourth-highest number of writers and intellectuals in prison globally, according to PEN America’s 2021 Freedom to Write Index. The IWA routinely faces targeting due to its insistence on upholding the rights to freedom of expression and association, as well as standing in solidarity with other writers under threat. Criticism of Iranian authorities or government policies often results in steep penalties, as in the case of Arash Ganji, an IWA member, writer, and translator currently serving an 11-year prison sentence related to his translation of a book on a Kurdish-led uprising in northern Syria. Unjust imprisonments such as these, coupled with increasingly harsh prison conditions, make the situation for writers in Iran even more dangerous.

In September 2021 PEN America awarded the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award to IWA leaders Baktash Abtin, a poet and filmmaker, writer Keyvan Bajan, and writer Reza Khandan Mahabadi. When Abtin contracted COVID-19 in late December 2021, authorities refused him urgently needed medical care, and he eventually died in state custody, his death a tragic testament to the costs of the Iranian state’s brutal repression. In January 2022, Iranian authorities also summoned journalist and anti-death penalty activist Narges Mohammadi on new, baseless charges after releasing her from prison last year, handing her an additional sentence of eight years in prison and 70 lashes. PEN America also continues to call for the full exoneration and release of Nasrin Sotoudeh, a lawyer and human rights activist currently serving a lengthy prison sentence on trumped-up charges in Iran.

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, STrimel@PEN.org, 201-247-5057