(NEW YORK)— Amid a violent crackdown on nationwide protests, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) has issued a scathing ruling against Iran for its persecution of the Iranian Writers Association (IWA) and systematic abuse of the judicial process. PEN America said it was “encouraged” by the ruling, calling it a “vindication” that affirms that the human rights of the writers and IWA members had been abused. The IWA is Iran’s foremost independent writers’ and free expression advocacy group, though it is currently banned in the country.

The UN decision comes in response to a petition by PEN America and the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights (RWCHR), and supported by the IWA, on behalf of Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, and Arash Ganji. Baktash Abtin died on January 8th of this year in state custody as a result of  repeated abuse and neglect of his medical needs after contracting COVID-19, while Khandan Mahabadi and Ganji remain imprisoned in standing violation of the UN decision. Bajan was released on parole in March after serving over half of his three year sentence, while Khandan Mahabadi remains behind bars.The writers were arrested, detained, and charged under fabricated and vague national security laws that the UN decision deemed illegal under international law for unduly limiting freedom of expression, assembly, and association.

“As the anniversary of Baktash Abtin’s death approaches, we are encouraged and heartened by this robust ruling,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, PEN America’s director of Free Expression at Risk Programs. “These writers were arrested and imprisoned on indefensible and spurious charges, and then subject to mistreatment behind bars, because of their literary work, as well as their steadfast defense of free expression in Iran. This ruling is a vindication that their fundamental rights have been violated, and we call on the Iranian government to address the UN’s concerns and offer them immediate restitution and freedom. We also urge that authorities cease pre-emptively detaining other members of the IWA, and release those writers arrested in recent weeks.”

The Working Group investigates cases of arbitrary detention worldwide under five categories, and found the writers’ detention arbitrary on all grounds laid out in the petition. The UN ruling found their detention to violate both Iranian domestic and international law and called for their immediate release and an independent investigation into Abtin’s death. The decision found “a systemic failure to provide access to counsel during criminal proceedings in the Islamic Republic of Iran,” and reiterated the UN finding that Iran’s judiciary acts “as a repressive organ instead of an independent body.” The decision also raised concern about crimes against humanity, citing the “widespread or systemic arbitrary detention in the country.”

“This indisputable UN decision is an indictment of Iran’s weaponized legal system and a recognition of the inextinguishable voices of Iran’s literary tradition,” said Yonah Diamond, a human rights lawyer with the RWCHR. “As Iran increasingly sentences young artists and demonstrators behind closed doors to public hangings, the international community needs to impose real costs on the Iranian officials responsible.”

Earlier this month, the UN raised the alarm about Iranian artists facing execution, again urging Iran to abolish the death penalty. Dozens of Iranians face impending execution related to the protests, including artists such as Toomaj Salehi and Saman Yasin, for mere lyrics or social media posts criticizing the regime. Last week, Taraneh Alidoosti, one of Iran’s most influential, Oscar-winning actors and also a literary translator, was arrested for Instagram posts calling for solidarity and an international reaction to the public execution of protesters. 

PEN America’s 2021 Freedom to Write Index, released in April 2022, shows that Iran jails the fourth highest number of writers and public intellectuals in the world. In 2022, arrests of writers and other artists have spiked dramatically. A number of other members of the IWA have also been detained in 2022 since this petition was filed, including labor activists, writers, and translators Keyvan Mohtadi and Anisha Asadollahi, detained in May (Asadollahi was released on bail in August while Mohtadi is currently awaiting a verdict); Atefeh Chaharmahalian, detained on October 3 and released on December 13; poet and translator Ali Asadollahi, detained since November 21; poet Alireza Adineh, arrested on November 30; and Aida Amidi and Roozbeh Sohani, arrested on December 5. More about PEN America’s advocacy work on Iran can be found here.

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, [email protected], 201-247-5057