The writers began a collective 15-and-a-half-year sentence at Evin Prison in Tehran in September 2020, on what writers’ association PEN America said were “spurious” national security and propaganda charges. Since then, Abtin and Khandan Mahabadi have both contracted Covid-19. Abtin is a poet, screenwriter and film-maker; Bajan is a novelist and journalist; and Khandan Mahabadi is an author and literary critic. According to PEN, their homes were raided and writings confiscated in 2015. They stood trial in 2019 and were sentenced to prison for “propaganda” and “colluding against national security”.
The letter – which is signed by dozens of writers including Jonathan Franzen, Margaret Atwood, Joyce Carol Oates and Khaled Hosseini, as well as playwrights including Tom Stoppard and Ariel Dorfman – calls on Iran’s president Ebrahim Raisi to release the authors, to acquit them of all charges “in the legal case wrongfully brought against them”, and to “cease official retribution against all writers exercising their right to express themselves freely”.
“It is high time the Iranian state respects the free expression rights of Iranian writers, poets, and thinkers and recognises the rich traditions of Iran’s diverse literary community,” says the letter, which was organised by PEN America and which is also signed by the actors Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, the writers Alice Sebold and Colm Tóibín and the cartoonist Art Spiegelman. “We call on you, President Raisi, to end the unjust imprisonments of Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi, and to release all those jailed in Iran for exercising their freedom to write.”
The three imprisoned writers will be given the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award this October. “[They] have fruitfully contributed to Iran’s rich literary history, writing books, poetry and short stories, and editing multi-volume encyclopedias of Iranian fiction and oral histories of great writers,” says the letter. “Despite the risks, Abtin, Bajan, and Khandan Mahabadi have nevertheless carried on the legacies of late Iranian poets, intellectuals, and dissidents by organising memorials, literary events, newsletters, and other publications – activities that, to the judiciary, amount to serious crimes.”