(New York)– The Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights (RWCHR) and PEN America filed a complaint with the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to hold Iran accountable for a pattern of targeting and imprisoning members of the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA), the leading free expression advocacy group representing writers in Iran.

The petition seeks a UN ruling finding the unjust detention of IWA leaders Baktash Abtin, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, Keyvan Bajan, and Arash Ganji to be in violation of Iranian domestic and international law, obliging their immediate release and compensation. Earlier this month, the prominent poet and filmmaker Baktash Abtin died as a result of abuse and neglect at the hands of the authorities while serving a six-year prison sentence on trumped-up charges.

The RWCHR and PEN America are urgently appealing to the UN and the international community to protect Abtin’s colleagues—who are coping with serious medical conditions—from suffering a similar fate. The writers were summoned to serve their sentences in notoriously overcrowded and unhygienic prison cells during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic simply for opposing State censorship and preserving the legacy of the IWA. In December 2021, Abtin and Khandan Mahabadi contracted severe cases of COVID-19 for which they were hospitalized and to which Abtin ultimately succumbed; Khandan Mahabadi is currently recovering but COVID-19 has exacerbated his underlying health concerns. Meanwhile, Ganji suffers from a serious heart condition and would be at grave risk if he were to contract COVID-19.

“Abtin, Bajan, Khandan Mahabadi, and Ganji have been imprisoned for their independent voices and steadfast insistence on the freedom to write,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s director of free expression at risk programs. “This was an egregious violation of their human rights. The Iranian regime’s efforts to silence Baktash Abtin and his colleagues, coupled with medical neglect and abuse in prison, resulted in Abtin’s unjust and premature death just weeks ago. We cannot overstate the urgent need to unconditionally release his colleagues from their arbitrary imprisonment and for the international community to stand firm in supporting Iranian writers’ rights to free expression.”

The IWA was banned shortly after the Iranian Revolution and its members have long faced systematic persecution, including imprisonment and even State-orchestrated assassinations known as Iran’s Chain Murders. The IWA continues its advocacy today despite the continued prosecution and imprisonment of its members and leadership.

“We expect the UN to promptly redress these unjust detentions as emblematic of a growing crackdown on activists, intellectuals and writers in Iran,” said Yonah Diamond, an international human rights lawyer with the RWCHR.  “Countries should also impose targeted (Magnitsky) sanctions on all officials involved in imprisoning these heroic champions of free expression.”

The EU and the US have already sanctioned Judge Moghisseh, one of the presiding judges over the IWA cases, for overseeing unfair trials and issuing harsh, even death sentences, to Iranian activists and journalists. The other presiding judge, Mohammadreza Amoozad, has issued death sentences against peaceful protestors and writers, including journalist Ruhollah Zam.

In September 2021, a group of internationally celebrated writers, including Nobel, Pulitzer prize, and Tony award winners and best-selling authors called on Iran to release the IWA writers and board members. PEN America honored the imprisoned trio—late poet-filmmaker Baktash Abtin, novelist-journalist Keyvan Bajan, and author-literary critic Reza Khandan Mahabadi—with the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on October 5, 2021. A month later, writer-translator Arash Ganji was imprisoned. In 2020, PEN America found that Iran imprisoned the fourth-highest number of writers and public intellectuals in the world.

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. pen.org

CONTACT; Suzanne Trimel, Strimel@PEN.org