New York, NY, June 25, 2002—PEN American Center and PEN Canada, two leading centers of International PEN, today issued an urgent appeal for the release of four prominent writers and translators imprisoned in Iran. At a joint press conference in Toronto that featured both a leading Iranian writer on women’s and legal issues and the former Special Representative of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights for Iran, PEN Canada also released the text of a resolution to be voted this evening at its Annual General Meeting calling on the Government of Canada forcefully to demonstrate its concern over the ongoing suppression of freedom of expression in Iran.

Flanked by PEN Canada Founding President and Booker Prize Winning author Margaret Atwood and current President Reza Baraheni, acclaimed Iranian writer and human rights lawyer Mehrangiz Kar spoke out publicly for the first time since her husband, jailed journalist and film critic Siamak Pourzand, reportedly sent a message from prison urging his family to abandon its efforts on his behalf.

Pourzand was abducted on November 24, 2001 and kept incommunicado for several months before being tried and convicted in closed proceedings, apparently on the strength of confessions extracted under duress. PEN has received reports that the 72 year-old Pourzand has suffered a heart attack in detention. The Iranian government has not yet allowed him access to full medical attention, nor will it officially confirm where he is being held. Instead, in May, the trial judge confirmed in a newspaper article that Pourzand had been sentenced to 11 years in prison, not eight as initial reports indicated.

“All too often, this is how Iranian citizens have learned the fate of some of the most prominent members of their society – men and women who disappear into detention without explanation, who are tried in closed proceedings, and who are sentenced to terms the government refuses to publicly explain or confirm,” PEN Canada President Reza Baraheni said. “PEN deplores this persecution, which is one more tool in an arsenal of judicial abuses that Iranian authorities regularly resort to as a means of suppressing important, peaceful opposition voices in Iran.”

In a statement, Ms. Kar noted she recently spent six months in an Iranian prison as one of 11 leading intellectuals who were prosecuted for participating in a public forum in Berlin, Germany in April 2000. Like Pourzand, the Berlin Conference participants were tried in closed proceedings and subjected to a changing list of charges and ambiguous sentences, and four remain in prison. Margaret Atwood saluted Ms. Kar’s courage, and noted the particular danger that writers and intellectuals face in Iran today. “In a society in which religion and government are closely allied, those who question the practices of government or the effects of these practices on a society may be deemed a heretic, and may face persecution that has nothing to do with the accuracy of what has been said and everything to do with the interests of the powers that be in suppressing unfavorable assessment.”

Maurice Copithorne, former Special Representative of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights to Iran, also spoke publicly for the first time since his office was eliminated when Iran successfully blocked a resolution condemning rights violations earlier this year. Copithorne, who was assigned the responsibility of documenting and reporting on human rights violations in Iran to the UN, expressed his dismay over the vote in the Commission and concerns over the loss of this important mechanism for monitoring abuses and encouraging compliance with international norms.

Canadian PEN President Baraheni told reporters PEN was determined to intensify its advocacy on behalf of writers and journalists in Iran. “We are today reiterating our call on the government of Iran to release Mr. Pourzand along with three other Honorary Members of PEN Canada and PEN American Center: translator Khalil Rostamkhani, journalist Akbar Ganji, and cleric and acclaimed essayist Hojjatoleslam Hasan Yousefi Eshkevari,” he said. “All four have endured grueling, unfair legal ordeals and are serving long prison terms that clearly violate their right to freedom of expression, and we request that they be released immediately and unconditionally.”

PEN Canada and PEN American Center are two of the largest in a global network of 131 centers around the world that make up International PEN. PEN’s mission is to promote literature and protect free expression whenever writers or their work are threatened. Internationally, PEN defends writers from censorship, harassment, and imprisonment, as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In addition, in the United States PEN American Center defends the First Amendment and protects free speech through sign-on letter campaigns, direct appeals to policy makers, participation in lawsuits and intervention in legal cases, awards for First Amendment defenders, and public events. In Canada, PEN Canada supports the right to freedom of expression as enshrined in Section 2(b) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660, ext. 105, lsiems@pen.org