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Free Expression in Iran

The Issue

Despite its rich cultural and literary traditions, Iran is among the world’s most restrictive countries for freedom of expression. While the human rights situation has been dire for decades, the state of free expression and respect for fundamental rights has deteriorated even further in recent years, placing Iran among the top jailers of writers and public intellectuals globally. The 2021 presidential election of Ebrahim Raisi, who has credibly been accused of involvement in mass killings of political prisoners in the 1980s, signaled yet another move toward escalating repression.

Iran remains notorious for a judicial system completely lacking in transparency, under which arbitrary arrests are commonplace and lengthy sentences are handed out without due process. Hundreds of political prisoners languish behind bars as authorities withhold critical care and medical attention, putting their lives in great danger and sometimes leading to death. The Iranian government has also been engaged in the targeting and transnational kidnapping of dissidents, writers, and journalists outside the country, as well as the harassment of prisoners’ family members inside the country.

Numerous women who question gender-based restrictions or secularists who propose reform of the current theocratic system are charged with “national security” or “propaganda” crimes. Likewise, Kurds fostering cultural preservation through the celebration of the Kurdish language are consistently met with government retaliation in the form of propaganda or blasphemy charges. In spite of this, Iran’s writers and artists remain steadfast in opposing censorship, pushing back against the boundaries on expression, and fostering a vibrant literary community.

Individual Cases

Nasrin Sotoudeh

Nasrin Sotoudeh

Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent writer, human rights lawyer and activist, was abruptly re-arrested on June 13, 2018, and taken to Evin prison.
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Baktash Abtin, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, and Keyvan Bajan

Baktash Abtin, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, and Keyvan Bajan

Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi are celebrated writers, free expression advocates, and board members of the Iranian Writers Association (IWA). The three writers are serving a collective 15 years and 6 months in prison on spurious national security and propaganda charges.
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Narges Mohammadi

Narges Mohammadi

Narges Mohammadi is an independent journalist and the former vice-president and spokesperson of the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC). Mohammadi was sentenced to 10 years in prison on the charge of “forming an illegal group.”
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Arash Ganji

Arash Ganji

Arash Ganji is a prominent writer, translator, and the Secretary of the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA). On December 28, 2020, he was sentenced to 11 years in prison on national security charges.
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Take Action for Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi

This year, PEN America is honoring imprisoned Iranian writers Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi with the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. All three writers have been imprisoned by the Iranian authorities for their writing, their defense of free expression, and their peaceful opposition to state censorship. Join PEN America in calling for their release now.

2021 Pen Barbey Freedom To Write Award Headshots

Latest News

Writer and Translator Arash Ganji Summoned to Serve Prison Sentence in Latest Assault on Free Expression in Iran

October 19, 2021
The summoning of Iranian writer and translator Arash Ganji to serve his prison sentence is the latest in the ongoing assault of free expression and human rights in Iran.

PEN America to Honor Imprisoned Iranian Writers and Free Expression Advocates Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi at 2021 Gala

September 16, 2021
PEN America today announces three imprisoned Iranian writers and free expression advocates—celebrated poet, screenwriter, and filmmaker Baktash Abtin; novelist and journalist Keyvan Bajan; and author, literary critic, and popular culture researcher Reza Khandan Mahabadi—as recipients of the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.

Iranian Agents Indicted in Plot to Kidnap Journalist and Activist in the U.S.

July 13, 2021
A federal court in New York today unsealed an indictment charging four Iranians in a plot to kidnap a Brooklyn-based journalist, author, and human rights advocate who had criticized the Iranian government.
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Advocacy

Letter: U.S. Must Prioritize Human Rights in Shaping Future Policy Toward Iran

Letter: U.S. Must Prioritize Human Rights in Shaping Future Policy Toward Iran

In a joint letter to the Biden-Harris administration, PEN America and its allies call on the U.S. to prioritize human rights as it re-enters nuclear negotiations with Iran.
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In Letter to the UN, Imprisoned Iranian Writer Nasrin Sotoudeh Protests Executions

In Letter to the UN, Imprisoned Iranian Writer Nasrin Sotoudeh Protests Executions

In this letter, jailed Iranian writer Nasrin Sotoudeh appeals to the UN and the global community to pay attention to the unjust executions taking place in her country.
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Statement by PEN to the 65th UN Commission on the Status of Women

Statement by PEN to the 65th UN Commission on the Status of Women

PEN is concerned about women facing harsh consequences for their expression to advance women’s rights, equality, and full participation in civic life.
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SIGN NOW: Iran Must Release Nasrin Sotoudeh

SIGN NOW: Iran Must Release Nasrin Sotoudeh

We write to call for the immediate and unconditional release of writer, human rights lawyer, and activist Nasrin Sotoudeh.
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Communication to the UN Commission on the Status of Women on the Persecution of Iranian Women's Rights Defenders

Communication to the UN Commission on the Status of Women on the Persecution of Iranian Women's Rights Defenders

We joined Iranian human rights organizations to alert the UN CSW to the persecution and prosecution of women human rights defenders in Iran.
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Open Letter to Supreme Leader of Iran on Nasrin Sotoudeh

Open Letter to Supreme Leader of Iran on Nasrin Sotoudeh

Nasrin Sotoudeh’s sentence of 38 years in prison and 148 lashes blatantly violates international law and the Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
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Commentary

Rights Groups: Iranian Dissidents Remain at Risk Worldwide Without International Action

Rights Groups: Iranian Dissidents Remain at Risk Worldwide Without International Action

PEN America and other rights groups sound the alarm about Iran's drastic steps to silence dissidents well beyond the country's borders.
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A Fifty Day Stand for Freedom

A Fifty Day Stand for Freedom

After nearly 50 days of forgoing food, Iranian women’s rights activist and PEN America Freedom to Write honoree Nasrin Sotoudeh ended her hunger strike.
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The PEN Pod: On Iran, Digital Sovereignty, and Divisive Topics on Campus

The PEN Pod: On Iran, Digital Sovereignty, and Divisive Topics on Campus

“Nasrin Sotoudeh is one [writer] that I’ll highlight, our 2011 PEN Freedom to Write Award winner who has been in and out of prison ever since and has been enduring a really incredible ordeal over the last year and a half, with a hunger strike, getting COVID in prison, not getting proper medical care, getting furloughed, getting rearrested.”
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Learn More About Writers at Risk Globally

During 2020, according to data collected for PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, Iran jailed at least 19 writers and public intellectuals, the fourth-highest number in the world, in connection with their writing, their work, or related activism. Globally, 35 countries—spanning all geographic regions—jailed at least 273 writers. The annual Freedom to Write Index has become an essential component of PEN America’s long-standing Writers at Risk Program, which encompasses support for and advocacy on behalf of writers under threat around the world.

Freedom To Write Index 2020 Featured Image

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