Sept. 28, 2020
Six years imprisonment
May 18, 2019
Ministry of Intelligence
Poet, documentary maker and member of the Iranian Writers’ Association
Conspiring against national security
Propaganda against the regime
Baktash Abtin is a poet, documentary filmmaker and a member of the Iranian Writers’ Association. He was sentenced to six years in prison on charges of “propaganda against the state” and “actions against national security.”
On April 26, 2015, Abtin was summoned to the Central Offices of the Ministry of Intelligence. His interrogation there was scheduled to last three days, however, security agents detained Abtin for longer than the specified period.
The Writers' Association immediately issued a statement protesting Abtin’s arrest and interrogation. The Association also addressed the suppression of writers and the violation of human and civil rights of its members, saying: "If such actions continue, we will carry out legal action to defend the rights of our members.”
Prior to this, on April 21, 2015, five agents from the Ministry of Intelligence went to Abtin's house by order of Branch 12 of the Culture and Media Prosecutor's Office. These agents searched Abtin’s home and confiscated more than a thousand film recordings, poems, manuscripts and family photos. They also seized his mobile phone, laptop and documents pertaining to the Iranian Writers' Association.
Following an extended period of interference by the security agencies, the Iranian Writers’ Association eventually convened its fifth general assembly, on August 29, 2014, for the first time in 12 years. During this general assembly elections for the Board of Directors of the Association took place in which Baktash Abtin, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, Hassan Asghari, Ali Ashraf Darvishian and Mehdi Ghobraei were all elected to the board.
Judicial authorities immediately reacted to the meeting and the vote by threatening the Association with legal action. Gholam-Hossein Mohseni Ejei, then spokesman for the judiciary, said in a press conference on September 1, 2014, concerning the Iranian Writers’ Association’s general meeting, that “Any institution which is established must adhere to the rule of law, and any current restrictions that are in place. If that institution violates restrictions, it will be for the Attorney General to take legal action to prevent it from doing so. Some of these restrictions are permanent and any individuals that ignore these restrictions will be stopped.”
The focus of the interrogations: from the Association’s statements to the 2009 protests
Baktash Abtin spoke about the interrogation sessions in his case in an interview with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, saying, "The main focus of my interrogations was on my activities at the Iranian Writers' Association and especially the statements that the association had made. Another important part of my interrogations was about my films that are not allowed to be shown in Iran and that have been screened in foreign festivals. They said I shouldn't have made those films and degraded the image of Iran. I believe that those films were all true reflections of Iran."
Abtin also added, “Another part of my interrogation was related to my participation in the 2009 street protests [which followed the disputed reelection of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president]. During one of those demonstrations, security officers stabbed me and fractured my skull. I was rushed to Firoozgar Hospital, where I was hospitalized for about a year. I was on the street like any other citizen that day, I didn't go out to take pictures or videos.”
When he was asked if he had faced any specific accusations during his interrogations, Baktash Abtin told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, “I was told that I was to be accused of ‘propaganda against the state’ and also ‘publishing journals without a license.’ When I asked them what they meant by an unlicensed journal, they said they meant the statements made by the Iranian Writers' Association.”
Abtin's case on the accusations of “propaganda against the state” and “publishing an illegal publication” remained open in the Culture and Media Prosecutor's Office without any final verdict until Abtin’s re-arrest, which took place on the anniversary of the deaths of the victims of the “Chain Murders”, a series of murders carried out between 1988 and 1998 by the Iranian government against critics of the Islamic Republic, when the judicial authorities brought new accusations against him.
Re-arrest and sentence to three months of compulsory labor
On December 2, 2016, a memorial service for the 18th anniversary of the murders of Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pooyandeh, both victims of the “Chain Murders,” was to be held at the victims’ shrine at the Taher Imamzadeh in Karaj. However, security forces and police officers in plainclothes intervened with the memorial service and violence ensued. Many of those attending the service and a number of members of the Iranian Writers’ Association, including Baktash Abtin, were beaten and arrested. Two days later, on December 4, Abtin was released on bail, however, a new case was filed against him by the Revolutionary Courts of Karaj on the accusations of “attending illegal gathering” and “beating a police officer.”
On January 16, 2017, Abtin was again summoned to the Revolutionary Courts of Karaj, where he was charged with “propaganda against the Islamic Republic of Iran.” He was then released on bail until June 2016, pending the court’s final verdict.
In an interview with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, Abtin said that he had been sentenced to three months compulsory labour with the Iranian Welfare Organization (instead of a year imprisonment) and fined five million tomans. He added that the evidence for the court's accusation of “propaganda against the state” was his publication of a picture, on his personal Instagram account, of Mazdak Zarafshan, one of the attendees of the memorial service of the victims of the Chain Murders. Zarafshan was severely beaten by police – as depicted in Abtin’s photo.
Abtin explained that, “On that day, several people were beaten and arrested, including Mazdak, the young son of Nasser Zarafshan, who was a lawyer in the ‘Chain Murders’ case and was consequently imprisoned for several years. Mazdak Zarafshan's face was severely bruised at the ceremony, his cheeks and ribs were broken, and after his release, I posted a picture of his face on my Instagram page. This post attracted a lot of attention and it was shared numerous times subsequently. After a few days, I received a summons letter from the Revolutionary Courts of Karaj and it became clear that the publication of this photo was considered an example of propaganda against the state. The verdict which has now been issued and accusation of ‘propaganda against the state’ was all because of that photo.”
According to Abtin, Branch 2 of the Revolutionary Courts of Karaj initially sentenced him to one year imprisonment. But this sentence was later reduced to three months of compulsory labor with the Iranian Welfare Organization and a fine of five million tomans.
After Abtin filed his objection to this sentence it was referred to the Court of Appeals. Eventually, in September 2018, the Court of Appeals removed the three-month compulsory labour punishment from his sentence but upheld the fine of five million tomans.
Summoned again concerning the first case
Prior to the Court of Appeals judgement in Abtin’s third case, described above, Abtin was summoned to Branch 7 of the Evin Prosecutor's Office in August 2018 concerning the interrogations and his legal case from 2015. This case had been opened in the Culture and Media Courts, but it remained unheard for three years until it was transferred to the Evin Prison Prosecutor’s Office in Tehran in 2018.
In November 2018, Baktash Abtin, along with two other members of the Iranian Writers' Association's board of directors, Reza Khandan Mahabadi and Keyvan Bajan, had their cases heard in Branch 7 of the Evin Prosecutor’s Office. They were accused of “gathering and colluding with the intention of committing acts against national security” and “encouraging women to commit corruption and prostitution.”
On January 22, 2019, Bektash Abtin, Reza Khandan Mahabadi, and Keyvan Bajan appeared in the Revolutionary Courts to have their case heard. According to reports Judge Mohammad Moghiseh denied their request to have a lawyer present at the court hearings.
In addition to this, the prosecutor of their case increased the bail for all three of the defendants from the initial amount of 50 million tomans to 100 million tomans and then finally to a billion tomans. As none of the defendants were able to provide this amount of bail, they were arrested.
At that same time, the Iranian Writers' Association issued a new statement saying that “The principle behind bail is that it ensures the accused will be present in court, and so in cases where the accused appears in court, there is no justification for such an exorbitant bail.” The statement reiterated the Association’s call for the immediate and unconditional release of its three members.
The statement added that “Defending freedom of expression is, without exception, the inalienable right of all citizens, and this includes the members of the Iranian Writers' Association. Therefore, no one should be prosecuted or sentenced [to penalties] for exercising this right. This is especially so since their incontrovertible rights have been suppressed in the ‘courts’ in the manner of the ‘Balkh Courts,’” the statement added, with reference to Persian literature.
Six days later, on January 28, 2019, Baktash Abtin was released from prison on bail until the end of the trial.
On April 27, 2019, Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Courts of Tehran, presided over by Judge Moghiseh, heard the accusations against Baktash Abtin. The accusations against Abtin were “gathering and colluding with the intention of committing acts against national security” and “propaganda against the state”. The evidence to support these accusations were the books published by the Iranian Writers' Association, including the commemorative work “Fifty Years of the Writers' Association of Iran,” statements by the Writers' Association and articles and content published on Abtin's personal accounts.
Eighteen years in prison for Khandan, Bajan and Abtin
On May 15, 2019, lawyers for the three accused, Nasser Zarafshan and Razieh Zaidi, announced that their defendants had been sentenced to a total of 18 years in prison.
According to the verdict issued by Branch 28 of the Revolutionary Court of Tehran, presided over by Judge Moghiseh, Khandan, Bajan and Abtin were each sentenced to a year in prison for “spreading propaganda against the state” and five years in prison for “gathering and colluding with the intention of committing actions against national security.” The sentences, for six years in prison each, was the equivalent of 18 years in prison across all three individuals.
The Iranian Writers’ Association published a statement in which it condemned the verdict issued against its three members. An excerpt of the statement reads,“The three writers have been sentenced to a total of 18 years imprisonment for simply being members of the Iranian Writers’ Association, for publishing a private journal for a cultural organization, for gathering documents for a book to commemorate the Association’s 50th anniversary, for visiting the graves of Ahmad Shamloo, Mohammad Mokhtari and Jafar Pooyandeh, for signing statements defending the freedom of expression of writers and artists, and for opposing executions and censorship. Which of these could be considered related to ‘national security?’ How can publishing a journal or protest statement be considered actions against national security? Whose security is endangered by the membership of the Association and going to the graves of poets or writers? Any court that has even the smallest modicum of justice or independence, and observes even the most basic notion of human rights, would consider that this doesn’t constitute any form of ‘evidence’ but rather just an excuse to file a criminal case.”
On May 18, approximately 900 members of the Association wrote to the country’s executive and judicial authorities, calling the prison sentences “a grave violation of the fundamental rights of the Iranian people” and demanding the exoneration of the three Association members as well as their immediate acquittal and release.
Appeal in the absence of the accused
In December 2019, Branch 36 of the Court of Appeals of the province of Tehran, presided over by Judge Ahmad Zargar, sentenced the three defendants to a total of fifteen and a half years imprisonment.
According to Baktash Abtin, who spoke to the Journalism is Not a Crime website, the Court of Appeals issued their verdict without any of the defendants or their lawyers present in the court and without hearing the defendants’ final statements.
The Court of Appeals’ sentence issued on December 28, 2019, upheld the lower court’s sentence against Abtin and Khandan. Bajan’s sentence was reduced by two and a half years to three and a half years imprisonment.
In protest against his ruling and the suppression of the Iranian Writers’ Association, Abtin said, “They think that by restricting and suppressing a number of members of the Association, they can destroy the activities of the entire Association, but that is completely wrong. The very nature of the Association is such that it cannot be destroyed. We might be arrested, but others will replace us. The Association’s focus is combating censorship, combatting the restrictions placed on thought and exercising the right to freedom, which is a difficult task. Although the Association’s activity and presence is being limited, our methods and ideas will never be suppressed. Even from prison, whether in this section or that cellblock we will be working to progress and advance the work of freedom in Iran.”
In an interview with Journalism is Not a Crime, Abtin added that in addition to the two accusations that he was convicted of in court, the judicial authorities also initially accused him of “inciting women to corruption and prostitution” during the investigatory stage of the court proceedings. However, this accusation was later dropped during the investigation.
According to Abtin, interrogators cited a statement published by the Iranian Writers’ Association for the 8th March Ceremony, International Women’s Day, and the publication of statements in support of the Girls of Enghelab Street, a series of protests against the compulsory hijab laws in Iran 2017-2019.
Baktash Abtin published a statement in which he publicly rejected the accusations made against him, saying, “All these accusations amount to is the fabrication of a legal case. However, we live in a country where everything is controlled by the security forces and we have no choice but to suffer the implications of that.”
The Iranian Writers’ Association published another statement in response to the sentence issued by the Court of Appeals, saying, “The whole process of this case, from the beginning until now, has been completely inhumane and in contempt of the process of justice.” The Association also called on all writers, artists, and cultural and human rights organizations to protest the court’s rulings and to call for their repeal.
Summons to enforce the court’s sentence during the coronavirus outbreak
On March 10, 2020 – in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak in Iran, with concerns mounting about the health conditions for prisoners during the outbreak – the three jailed members of the Iranian Writers’ Association were summoned to Branch 1 of the Sentence Enforcement Department of the Prosecutor’s Office of Evin Prison for them to begin serving their sentence.
The summons came despite Ebrahim Raisi, the head of the Iranian judiciary, having previously issued a public letter which stated that, to limit the spread of coronavirus, judicial authorities had been requested to defer jailing convicted individuals who were either released on bail or had yet to begin their sentences, except in “vital” cases. Raisi also stated that “Convicts whose convictions have been finalized and are currently on bail should be barred from entering prisons until the end of April, unless absolutely necessary.”
The Iranian Writers’ Association again responded to the latest developments, saying “The judiciary is determined to imprison these three writers. And at this point, with the coronavirus spreading so rapidly throughout the country and taking so many lives, does it mean anything other than that security and judicial officials want to send their critics to be sacrificed? The issuance of such rulings and statements by the judiciary of the Islamic Republic is a clear and obvious sign that this institution is not adhering to the most basic moral and human rights standards.”
Professional Work Record
Baktash Abtin has published several collections of poetry since the late 1990s, including My Eyelashes Have Stitched My Eyes Closed, My Legs Have Become Pens, They Wrote ‘Let’s Go Back’, Solitude, Sledgehammer and In My Own Monkey, Is My Grandfather.
Abtin has also made several documentaries, including October 13, 1937, about Loris Tjeknavorian, the world-renowned composer and conductor, Homayoun Khoram, a documentary about the eponymous Iranian composer, Ansor, part of which is about the life of Alisha Molavi, the late poet and a former member of the Iranian Writers’ Association.
About the Iranian Writers’ Association
The Iranian Writers’ Association is a non-governmental organisation consisting of writers, translators and editors, and is affiliated with PEN International. The Association was officially formed in 1968, with the aim of organizing a writers’ union to fight against censorship. Since its inception, and especially during the 1980s and 1990s, the Iranian Writers’ Association and its members have faced varying degrees of repression, from censorship, legal prosecution and even murder. Mohammad Jafar Pooyandeh and Mohammad Mokhtari were among the members of Writers’ Association who were both killed by agents from Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence.