- PEN America, Joined by PEN Sydney and PEN Melbourne, Mourns Baktash Abtin’s Death in Solidarity with the Iranian Writers’ Association and Abtin’s Family
PEN America, Joined by PEN Sydney and PEN Melbourne, Mourns Baktash Abtin’s Death in Solidarity with the Iranian Writers’ Association and Abtin’s Family
(New York, NY) — Following the devastating death of prominent Iranian poet, filmmaker, free expression advocate, and 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honoree Baktash Abtin in state custody from COVID-19 contracted at Tehran’s Evin prison after he was denied timely and robust medical care in the crucial early stages of infection from the virus, PEN America, joined by PEN Sydney and PEN Melbourne, released the following joint message of solidarity. The below message was written in Farsi to be read at Abtin’s funeral, held on January 9, but Abtin’s colleagues, members of the Iranian Writers’ Association, were not able to do so due to security and other logistical arrangements during the ceremony. We share it here, in translation:“The respected family of Baktash Abtin
The respected members of Iranian Writers’ Association
The respected attendees
Please accept our sincere condolences. Baktash in fact was killed due to the neglect of the authorities. The regime directly is responsible for his death.
To the family of Baktash, you lost a dear member of your family; the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA) and we have lost a dear and committed colleague. Baktash’s death is a great loss for those who fight for freedom in general and freedom of expression particularly. He fought against censorship, but the regime took him away via physical censorship. Despite this, his powerful presence will remain with us forever through his poems, principles, and commitments.
Dear family of Baktash, friends, and comrades in the IWA, we stand with you from afar, and we will stay standing by you. Our solidarity is steadfast and we encourage you to stay strong, the victory is not far away. We are in bereavement with you.
PEN America, PEN Sydney, and PEN Melbourne”
Baktash Abtin, aged 47, was serving a six-year sentence for his vocal defense of free expression in the country, demonstrated by his leadership in the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA) and his boundless creativity and writing that challenged state censorship. He was imprisoned as part of a spurious criminal case that also targeted his fellow IWA board members novelist-journalist Keyvan Bajan and author-literary critic Reza Khandan Mahabadi. During his imprisonment, Abtin continued to speak out against injustice; authorities attempted to charge him again after he joined other people jailed in Evin prison in writing a letter warning about the spread of the coronavirus. His contraction of COVID-19 in early December was the second time he suffered from the virus—he first showed symptoms consistent with COVID-19, including pulmonary issues, in April—but authorities delayed sending him to receive adequate care and allowing him a medical furlough until his condition became truly critical. Since early December, Bajan has also shown flu-like symptoms, and Khandan Mahabadi was transferred to a hospital after showing coronavirus symptoms but is currently recovering.
“We join the global literary and human rights communities in mourning the senseless and wholly preventable death of Baktash Abtin,” said PEN America’s Director of Free Expression at Risk Programs Karin Deutsch Karlekar. “Given the track record of abject failure to contain the spread of repeated waves of COVID-19 at Evin prison and the delays in providing timely and adequate medical care to those prisoners who contract COVID-19, we have long been gravely concerned for Abtin’s safety and that of his jailed IWA colleagues—Keyvan Bajan, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, and Arash Ganji. His tragic death in custody stains the Iranian regime, whose shameful imprisonment and medical neglect resulted in his death. We must not allow Abtin’s passing at the hands of the Iranian authorities to have been in vain, and urgently repeat our demand that the Iranian government immediately release Keyvan Bajan, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, and Arash Ganji, along with others unjustly detained in Iran and who are battling COVID infections or other severe health concerns.”
Zoe Rodriguez, the co-president of PEN Sydney, added: “Abtin’s death is terrible news to all who are committed to freedom in general and freedom of expression specifically; we have lost a brave member of our international family. When PEN Sydney spoke to Baktash and Reza in April 2020, Baktash told us, ‘freedom has never been gifted to anyone on a gold-wrapped plate. We ought to pay a heavy price for it. In countries like ours, where a dictatorship is ruling, while we are fighting for freedom of expression and against censorship, to obtain our natural rights seems more difficult. In a country like Iran, death is very cheap for intellectuals, freedom-loving people, and those who fight for freedom of expression. As my friend Reza Khandan said, we are not worried to face trials, to go to prison, and to endure sufferings, because we have made up our minds. . . if they have any opportunities, they will terminate us one by one. We, with complete knowledge of the risks, will emphasize our defined obligation, which is to fight for freedom of expression and against censorship.’ We believe the regime in fact killed Baktash, we hold the regime in Iran responsible for his death, and we send our condolences to Baktash’s family and his colleagues in the IWA. He will never be forgotten.”
Abtin’s death marks an immeasurable loss for the Iranian creative and free expression communities, and his advocacy and resulting unjust imprisonment had galvanized leading figures in the global literary community in support of releasing jailed Iranian writers. PEN America honored Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi with the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on October 5, 2021. A few weeks later, their IWA colleague Arash Ganji joined them in Evin prison after being summoned to serve an 11-year sentence for translating a book and other purported crimes. According to PEN America’s 2020 Freedom to Write Index, Iran jailed the fourth-highest number of writers and intellectuals globally. PEN America continues to advocate on behalf of a number of individuals sentenced or imprisoned for their expression, including writers, journalists, and activists.
The following is from Iranian Writers’ Association, (translated by Mammad Aidani)
The commemoration of Baktash Abtin in the women’s ward of Evin Prison led to the transfer of one of the prisoners.
On Sunday, January 10, the political prisoners in the women’s ward of Evin Prison held a memorial service for Baktash Abtin, a poet, filmmaker and member of the Writers’ Association of Iran.
The following morning, January 11, prison officials raided the women’s ward. They tried to transfer Alieh Motalebzadeh, a photographer, journalist, women’s rights activist, and vice president of the Association for the Defense of Freedom of the Press. One of the main organisers of the memorial service to faced her with other prisoners. The Prison officials then threatened the detainees to enter the ward by resorting to “executing the warrant” if they did not hand Alieh Motalebzadeh.
Finally, by force and pressure on the prisoners, she was transferred to Qarchak prison in Varamin on Monday evening. According to an informed source, Alieh Motalebzadeh was transferred to Qarchak prison by order of the Tehran prosecutor.
One reason for Alieh Motalebzadeh’s transfer was to hold a memorial service for Baktash Abtin.
Abtin, Jailed for Dissent, is Second Political Prisoner to Die in Iran in First Week of 2022
January 8, 2021 – The death of Iranian poet Baktash Abtin today in Tehran after contracting COVID-19 in Evin Prison is the result of the Iranian judiciary chief’s inhumane treatment of prisoners and the government’s refusal to hold responsible officials accountable.
Abtin, who died after being put into an induced coma while hospitalized, is the second known political prisoner to die in Iran in the first week of 2022. On January 1, Kian Adelpour died after going on hunger strike to protest being imprisoned without a fair trial.
“This is a preventable tragedy and more prisoners’ deaths are inevitable because there is no accountability in the Iranian government,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI). “Abtin was imprisoned in Iran because the government wanted to muzzle him with a jail cell; the state killed him.”
“The Iranian government is killing people to suppress free speech and crush freedom of thought,” Ghaemi added. “Two political prisoners are dead in Iran in one week. Judiciary Chief Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei is responsible and must be held accountable.”
According to Iranian law, the State Prisons’ Organization and judiciary chief to which it reports are responsible for the safety and security of all prisoners.
While offering condolences to Abtin’s family and friends, the Iranian Writers Association (IWA) where Abtin, 48, was a board member, released a statement on January 8 on the “injustice that was committed against Abtin.”
“Baktash Abtin is alive because the spirit of freedom-seeking and the fight against tyranny and injustice is alive,” said the statement.
Writers who refuse to abide by arbitrary censorship rules in Iran are subject to harassment by intelligence agencies and prosecution without due process.
Abtin had been serving a five-year prison sentence on the charge of “assembly and collusion against national security.”
Fellow IWA board member Reza Khandan Mahabadi was also sentenced to five years in prison and Keyvan Bajan to three years and six months.
An international chorus has condemned the IWA writers’ imprisonment, with dozens of high-profile writers and artistic figures including Nobel laureates calling for the writers’ acquittal.
Engaging in any form of dissent that can be deemed critical of state policies in Iran can result in the accused individual being targeted by the intelligence-security establishment and imprisoned on trumped-up national security charges.
At least 11 writers are known to be either currently imprisoned or living with an unserved prison sentence hanging over their heads in Iran as they await an appeal or to be summoned to jail, according to a list compiled by CHRI.
These writers were all unjustly targeted by intelligence agencies and the judiciary for practicing and advocating freedom of speech.
The Iranian government has essentially criminalized freedom of expression and speech, despite Article 28 of Iran’s Charter on Citizens’ Rights, which calls on the government to “promote and develop the culture of accepting criticism, tolerance, and compromise.”
Iranian law also stipulates that individuals should not be targeted for their beliefs.
In an interview with CHRI in May 2019 after his trial, Abtin forcefully said the charge of “assembly and collusion against national security” was for statements published by the IWA, articles in the organization’s internal newsletter, and holding memorial ceremonies for IWA members Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh, who were murdered in 1998 as part of a concerted state policy to eliminate political and cultural dissidents inside and outside of Iran.
“Nowhere in the world is it necessary to get a permit to gather around someone’s grave,” Abtin told CHRI. “But that’s what we’ve been charged with.”
Arash Ganji – 11 years prison in Iran for translating a book
The Iranian regime has demonstrated yet again that they are the sworn enemy of freedom. On Saturday 16 October writer Arash Ganji was summonsed to serve his 11 year prison term in the notorious Evin Prison, after losing his appeal. The judge who issued the summons is Moghiseh, known as Naserian, whose name has been mentioned repeatedly in the trial currently taking place in The Stockholm District Court in Sweden in connection to the mass murder of thousands of Iranian political prisoners in 1988.
Arash Ganji is a prominent writer, translator, and on the board of The Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA), which advocates for freedom of expression and an end to censorship. In December 2019 Ganji was arrested and detained at Evin Prison for 29 days for his translation of a book about a Kurdish-led uprising in northern Syria, a year later he was sentenced to 11 years in prison on a number of national security charges.
In June 2021 he recorded this video for PEN Sydney, in which he called for freedom of expression across the Middle East: “I know very well that real freedom of expression cannot be guaranteed simply by being mentioned on a piece of paper and we should not see that as an ultimate solution. But the lack of those guarantees gives governments a free hand to attack that freedom violently. Middle Eastern governments have not and would not easily accept freedom of expression, so we need to fight and struggle to bring freedom of expression into the constitutions of these countries; and whether we achieve it or not, it will be a huge democratic fight. This struggle will lay the ground for alliances and international solidarity with other democratic movements like the working class, women, the environment, migrants and others. And this will be a way for us to learn how to practise struggle and internationalism.”
Arash joins three other Iranian writers Reza Khandan Mahabadi, Baktash Abtin and Keyvan Bazhan who are currently being held in Evin prison for their critical writing. All three are members of the IWA. Recently PEN America honoured the trio with the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. In the 1980s and 1990s the Iranian regime assassinated, killed and attempted to kill several members of the IWA.
The Iranian regime is trying in vain to put handcuff the thoughts and creativity of Arash Ganji. But history has shown that thoughts become action, voices become screams and words flourish beyond the walls of prisons. The hands of international solidarity will reach behind the walls of Evin prison to support and warm the hearts of all four IWA members, to terminate tyranny and to deliver freedom for all of them.
PEN Sydney, PEN Melbourne and PEN Perth call for the immediate release of IWA members and all political prisoners in Iran. We remind the Iranian authorities of their obligation under the UN Human Rights Charter to respect all freedoms and to immediately abolish all executions and all forms of torture and trauma.
Prominent Iranian Writers Sent to Prison for Peaceful Dissent
Lawyer: “These sentences are without legal and judicial merit. They are only political rulings”
Prominent members of the Iranian Writers Association (IWA) have begun serving prison sentences for the peaceful expression dissent and their opposition to censorship.
“On September 26, 2020, IWA board members Reza Khandan Mahabadi and Baktash Abtin, as well as former board member Keyvan Bajan, were transferred to Evin Prison [to begin serving their] sentences… The three IWA members must be freed unconditionally,” said a statement from the writers’ association on September 27.
It added: “The IWA believes the enforcement of the sentences is a criminal act and a violation of the principles of human rights…”
The three IWA members were sentenced in May 2019 to six years prison each on charges of “propaganda against the state” (one year) and “assembly and collusion against national security” (five years), for their peaceful actions including publishing documents about the IWA’s history and statements against censorship, and organizing memorial ceremonies for IWA members who’d been killed by state agents in the 1990s.
In December 2019, Branch 36 of the Appeals Court upheld the sentences against Abtin and Mahabadi and reduced Bajan’s sentence to three years and six months. Based on Article 134 of Iran’s Islamic Penal Code, which states that in cases where there are multiple charges, only the sentence for the most severe charge will be served, Abtin and Mahabadi would have to serve five years in prison.
Lawyer: “The appeal courts in Iran have turned into confirmation courts”
“Unfortunately the appeal courts in Iran have turned into confirmation courts,” human rights attorney Nasser Zarafshan told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) in an interview on October 6, 2020.
“The appeal courts’ authority has been watered down so much that their rulings are just a formality to confirm sentences,” he added.
Zarafshan said the sentences against the three IWA members lacked any legal foundation.
“These sentences are without legal and judicial merit. They are only political rulings,” he said.
The attorney, who himself served five years in prison for representing the families of dissidents murdered in the 1990s, said the persecution of the literary community shows the Iranian authorities’ level of intolerance toward opposing voices.
He noted that the IWA is a professional organization that has never demanded a share of power and therefore should not be treated as a political rival.
“Writers and thinkers have always written against censorship and advocated freedom of expression and those who hold power have always imposed censorship and confronted writers but at the present time the magnitude is unprecedented.”
Zarafshan continued: “The pressure on intellectuals and writers has increased so much that some have been questioned for being silent on certain issues.”
Three members of the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA) who are facing immediate imprisonment in Iran talk with PEN Sydney president, Mark Isaacs
Mr Mark Isaacs: My name is Mark Isaacs, I’m a writer from Australia. I am the president of PEN Sydney, an associate of PEN International. I’ve been writing about conflict and displacement for close to a decade. My first book published was a whistleblower account of what happened in the Australian-run detention centre, or prison, for refugees on Nauru, which included Iranian refugees and since then I’ve traveled to Iran, Afghanistan and written a book on the peace movement in Afghanistan.
Mr Reza Khandan Mahabadi: I also send my greetings to you Mark and I do appreciate your attendance in this conversation. I am Reza Khandan. I’m a member of the Secretariats Board of the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA). I am a writer, literature critic and I have had some research on popular culture. I have been a member of IWA for about 22 years, which is an independent organisation (I will explain its activities later). The IWA defends freedom of expression, writers’ rights and is against censorship.
Mr Baktash Abtin: I am happy too to participate in this meeting. I am Baktash Abtin. I’m a member of the Secretariats Board of IWA. I am a poet and filmmaker and have been a board member of IWA three times. I will talk about IWA’s activities later.
Mark Isaacs: Okay, “Salam-alaikom” to you both “khaily mokhlesim dadash” and it is a pleasure to be speaking to both of you, so thank you for giving me the opportunity. (Reza and Baktash were surprised by Mark’s Persian and laughed)
Reza Khandan Mahabadi: Since our legal case related to our activities in IWA, first I will provide an introduction about IWA. In this way, when we talk about our accusations, charges and sentences you will have a clear idea what we are talking about.
The IWA was established by some prominent writers against the censorship of the regime in 1968. The Shah’s regime introduced a law by which all the books must be over checked and approved before publishing. At the same time, the regime introduced some other measures in the print media arena and culture in general to impose more censorship.
In opposition to this, a number of progressive and well-known writers decided to publish a statement and this statement became the first step for establishing the IWA. The writers applied to register their organisation, but the Shah’s regime did not agree and about two years later some of their members were arrested. Finally, the regime put an end to the IWA’s activities after two years. In 1977, with the revolution in Iran, several IWA members became active and rejuvenated the organisation. These activities were continued until 1981 but again, the IWA’s activities were banned by the new regime. The activities were declared illegal. The IWA’s office was seized, several members were arrested and imprisoned, and once again IWA’s activities were banned.
In regards to IWA’s activities, I should explain that this is a professional and cultural organisation. On the professional front it defends the writer’s rights and on the cultural front it defends freedom of expression and is against censorship.
IWA was inactive for about a decade but despite many threats, it started to revitalise its activities. The pressure and danger were such that, during the Chain Political Murders in Iran in 1988, they murdered two IWA members. The IWA victims were four persons but the regime officially only admitted to the murder of two. This means the Intelligent Ministry admitted they killed just two of them. The IWA members have been under pressure all these years. In 1988, IWA members ran an election and elected a temporary board to restart its activities. Since then the Islamic Republic government has not allowed IWA to be active.
State censorship was increasing daily and it needed to be challenged. This meant Iranian writers had to do something. Since then IWA’s activities continued but of course “illegally”. The regime put a lot of pressure on IWA members. The IWA has never been allowed to have an office and officially operate (except 2-3 years during the revolution). The IWA members have repeatedly been put under pressure and called upon by the intelligence and security organisations; four, five of its members are facing imprisonment or are in jail right now. Despite of all these pressures imposed on them by the state, a large number of writers remain members of IWA. For example, Ahmad Shamloo, who you might know. Despite all these pressures and intimidations, IWA is still active. IWA has a Facebook page and a channel on Telegram [social media mobile app which is popular in Iran]. IWA was publishing a periodical publication that was not allowed to continue. IWA issues statements on special occasions. These activities are still going on in this or another way.
I tried to paint a brief picture of the current situation of IWA and I hope I shed a bit of light on it. If Baktash thinks I missed something, I would be happy if he explains.
Baktash Abtin: It would be enough to add this, though Reza covered it: according to the Islamic Republic State, the IWA has always been an illegal organization. Therefore, its members, for their association with IWA, have been subjected to persecution and imprisonment and they will be under pressure. In addition, in Iran no media outlets are allowed to mention the IWA unless to offend, accuse or harass it. Now if you agree, please allow me to talk about Mr Reza Khandan Mahabadi, Mr Keyvan Bajan and my convictions, and also Mr Arash Ganji and other colleagues in IWA.
Mark Isaacs: Yes please, please.
Reza Khandan Mahabadi: Excuse me Baktash, before we address that, let me touch on an important issue. Is it okay?
Baktash Abtin: Yes please.
Reza Khandan Mahabadi: To address the importance of the IWA I have to mention that the censorship in Iran is so extensive that just yesterday Reporters Without Borders ranked Iran’s freedom of press 173 out of 180 countries around the word. The year before Iran’s ranking was 170. This year it dropped 3 places more. The IWA consider it a duty to be active to combat such a condition.
Mark Isaacs: Can you talk just a little bit more about the work both you do with the Iranian Writers Association but also your work more generally?
Baktash Abtin: I have published five poetry books and I have made more than ten feature and documentary films. But unfortunately for the past six years all my books have been banned from appearing in book exhibitions or bookstores. They did not allow the public to access my books nor my films to be screened. If the authorities were tipped off that a gathering was organised for me to read my poems or to screen my films, they would shoot the place down and, they do not allow the program to go ahead. This is not just limited to me, Mr Khandan who is here has the same situation.
Reza Khandan Mahabdi: I started my works in children’s literature about 40 years ago. At that time, 1978, I published a collection of children’s stories and a book on research and critique of children’s literature and several collections of children’s literature. I got arrested in 1981 for a while. I started a collection of writings called “Encyclopaedia of Fictions of People in Iran” with my colleague, Mr Ali Ashraf Darvishian in the late ‘80s, which was published in 19 volumes. I also published a collection of study and critique called “My Beloved Stories”, about selected short stories in Iran in the past 80 years, which was published in seven volumes. I also published a collection of stories called “The Solitaries” and of course many more essays and critiques like these. I said these to let you know I have been involved with censorship all these years. Like the other writers in Iran, I have been caught up with censorship without exception because the book must have permission from a government body for publication and this body sometimes changes the text or sometimes they do not give permission for publication. We have been caught up with censorship for many years, except for two to three years in 1977-1981 at the beginning of the revolution. All these years we have always been caught up with censorship, exclusion and elimination.
Mark Isaacs: Thank you for the information and I’m sorry to hear that you are under those kinds of restrictions. Can I ask what is exactly the opposition from the government to the IWA and the act of writing? Is it just the government or are there other groups involved that are in opposition to writers?
Reza Khandan Mahabdi: Specifically, and fundamentally, it is the government. There are no other groups, at least directly and publicly. This is the government that does not allow us to work. This is the government that we have to obtain permission for publishing books. The government, through organisations or bodies like the Intelligence Ministry, halts the activities of the IWA or any other independent organisation of writers. They summon us, they frame us with legal cases and imprison us. These are the problems we are facing directly. Of course, there are so called “cultural” newspapers like “Kayhan” that usually, with the posture of culture, attack the IWA or disseminate lies; or there are some writers who side with the government and occasionally attack the IWA, but fundamentally it is the government that has been against the IWA and does not allow us to work.
Mark Isaacs: Now I’d like to hear about your cases.
Baktash Abtin: The security forces attacked my house in April-May 2015 and confiscated more than 1000 of my poems. After a while, the same thing happened to Mr Reza Khandan Mahabdi and Keyvan Bajan. Later, they took us to the Culture and Media Court Subdivision 2 and we were charged. We were charged with printing illegal publications and propaganda against the state. I want to mention now that they opened two more cases against me and I was persecuted a lot. I do not include them here to prevent any mix up with this case. Our cases from the Culture and Media Court were transferred to the court in Evin prison. This time they charged us with other accusations including “propaganda against the state”, “assembly and collusion against national security”, “encouraging women to immorality or prostitution” and some baseless accusations. The latter was so ridiculous, even for the authorities, that it was removed from our cases. Then they referred us to the court and in the first trial the verdict was 6 years imprisonment. In the court we asked the judge to allow us to use our basic rights in order for our lawyer be present in the court and read the case because they did not pass on the case to our lawyer. But the judge aggressively, which is his usual attitude, did not accept our request; and since we insisted on our request, we refused to be charged officially and refused the judge to proceed with the trial, we were transferred to the Evin prison.
[In the Iranian courts, the judge reads the charges first and then the accused must sign the paper accepting they heard the charges. After that the court can start, but since their lawyers were not in the court, Reza, Baktash and Keyvan did not sign the paperwork. Therefore, they did not allow the judge to charge them officially. And the judge sent them directly to Evin prison.]
The judge then increased our bail amount from 100 million Toman to one billion Toman. Finally, in the court of appeal, Mr Khandan and my verdicts remained the same, 6 years imprisonments, but my colleague Mr Bazhan’s verdict was reduced to three years imprisonment. In March 2020, even though the Covid-19 virus was spreading all over the world, we were called to go prison to serve our sentences; because of Covid-19 we did not go to jail and now it’s unclear when they will come to arrest us and take us to prison. All this happened because we are members of the IWA, working for freedom of expression and against censorship. I do not have anything to add. If I missed something I would like Reza to cover it.
Reza Khandan Mahabadi: Just to highlight two points, when it is mentioned, five years ago they came to our homes and took our notes, handwriting, writings and films, it is important to clarify for Mark who they were and what organisation they belonged to. They were officials from the Ministry of Intelligence. The second point is we did not go to the Court of Culture and Media. This court gave the summons to the Ministry of Intelligence. They charged us after the interrogation in the Evin Security Court. The authorities in Iran label political prisoners as security prisoners. It is necessary to know what their reasons were for those charges against us. I will explain the reasons one by one. The IWA has always issued statements according to its charter in regards to social events. The Iranian authorities used these statements to charge us for “propaganda against the state”. Ten members of IWA, two years ago, compiled a book about the history of IWA on its 50th anniversary. A small number of this book was published but the Ministry of Intelligence seized the books. This book was also used as evidence for “propaganda against the state”. For the mouthful charge of “assembly and collusion against national security”, the authorities imply the gathering of the IWA members on the graves of Ahmad Shamloo (renowned poet), Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh (two members of IWA who the intelligence service murdered in 1988). Their families, friends and IWA members have gathered every year on their graves to commemorate them, though the authorities have never allowed the gathering. These gatherings were used against us as “assembly and collusion against national security”. Another reason was the publishing of an internal publication. The IWA has an internal publication for its members. For the past 3-4 years we published around 200 copies. This publication was another reason for “propaganda against the state”. These so-called reasons to prove the charges, in fact, are not considered to incriminate anyone: to publish a magazine, to go to a graveyard to commemorate your fellow writers, and compiling a book. But the interrogators and judges use these accusations like “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security” to impose heavy penalties. Right now, by employing such accusations which have nothing to do with the reasons, they have imposed six years jail terms for Baktash and I and three years for Keyvan. I do not have any more explanations unless you have any other specific questions.
[Mark asked Reza and Baktash to explain a little bit more about the Chain Killings of the IWA members but the telephone line was disrupted and when it reconnected the conversation continued about mutual relationship between the IWA and the PEN centres in Australia and how PEN centres can support writers in Iran.]
Reza Khandan Mahabdi: Look, we the people in the literature sector all around the world should look after each other and I personally am surprised that the PEN associations in other countries either do not know about the IWA with its 50 years history or they know a little about us and the IWA’s activities. The priority for all the similar associations around the world is to look after each other. And about our legal cases, of course it is natural we believe these sentences are cruel. These sentences and accusations fundamentally have nothing to do with our activities. We expect PEN associations’ and public opinion’s pressure and campaigns will help revoke these sentences. We do not fear to pay a price for freedom of expression and we are aware that promoting freedom of expression in a place like Iran has a price to pay. But it does not mean we accept such an unjust verdict voluntarily. We expect all writers around the world to pay attention to this issue and to not allow writers to go to jail very easily.
Mark Isaacs: I could not agree more, I am grateful I have the opportunity to try and assist you.
Reza Khandan Mahabadi: And the question of how and in what ways to assist, I believe you have the knowledge of how to put pressure on the Iranian Government and its Judicial Ministry, which not only executes these sentences but cancels them too. This would be a victory for freedom of expression. This is to defend freedom of expression, not just three of us. This is to defend freedom and the right to have freedom of expression in this country and all around the world. In addition, we expect the relationship between the IWA and PEN associations in Australia and other places to continue, and to have more cooperation and to know each other better. I do not have anything else to add for now.
Baktash Abtin: My colleague’s words were good enough, but I’d like to add that freedom has never been gifted to anyone on a gold-wrapped plate. We ought to pay a heavy price for it. In countries like ours, where a dictatorship is ruling, while we are fighting for freedom of expression and against censorship, to obtain our natural rights seems more difficult. In a country like Iran, death is very cheap for intellectuals, freedom loving people and those who fight for freedom of expression. As my friend Reza Khandan said, we are not worried to face trials, to go to prison and endure sufferings, because we have made up our minds. While they ran the Chain Murders in 1988, or they tried to divert the full bus load of IWA members into a valley and portray it as an accident in 1996; if they have any opportunities, they will terminate us one by one. We, with complete knowledge of the risks, will emphasise our defined obligation, which is to fight for freedom of expression and against censorship. But we expect all our friends, writers, intellectuals and those who fight for freedom of expression around the world to support us, especially while they do not have a similar horrible situation like us. Your support is not for a couple of names, your support is about supporting a series of existences and making a stand, otherwise we would come and go. And, as I said, in third world countries, death is very cheap and suffering widely available. Therefore, we expect our friends to support us and our freedom. Thanks.
Mark Isaacs: Thank you guys, I really appreciate that you have given me the opportunity to speak with you, hear your stories. I do not think I have any more questions. I think you have covered everything I wanted to speak about, but I can assure you that Sydney PEN would like to engage in communication with you, with the IWA, and continue the dialogue and we will definitely support and promote a campaign in PEN International for your cases. It is a pleasure to speak with you.
Baktash Abtin: Thank you very much for your time to have such a constructive conversation.
Reza Khandan mahabadi: Thank you as well for this conversation. I hope we have conversations like this again and more often. Thanks for your time.