In 2022, Iran imprisoned the second most writers worldwide, according to PEN America, an advocacy group for freedom of expression. “The state of free expression globally remained perilous” in 2022, PEN said in its annual Freedom to Write Index. Key factoids include:
- Iran detained at least 57 out of 311 writers who were in prison across 36 countries. It was second only to China, which detained at least 90 writers.
- Iran accounted for nearly half of the 84 new detentions worldwide.
- In 2022, Iran detained more than double the number of intellectuals compared to 2021. Many writers were detained during nationwide protests that broke out in September 2022.
- The Islamic Republic also had the most detained women writers – 16 out of 42.
Top 10 Countries 2022 - Writers in Custody
- China (90)
- Iran (57)
- Saudi Arabia (20)
- Belarus (16)
- Myanmar (16)
- Vietnam (16)
- Türkiye (15)
- Egypt (10)
- India (9)
- Eritrea (8)
The tactic of imprisoning writers and intellectuals “intended to spark fear” and make people “question what they write, or whether they should write at all.” The following is the Iran section of the 2022 PEN report.
The already restrictive environment for free expression deteriorated sharply during the second part of 2022, as Iran was engulfed in anti-government demonstrations following the custodial death in September of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa (Jina) Amini, who was arrested for allegedly not wearing her hijab properly. Amidst a broad-based crackdown on protestors during which thousands of people, mostly young men and women, have been arrested and detained and hundreds killed, authorities engaged in a pre-emptive crackdown against Iran’s creative community, systematically targeting known writers, artists, and dissenting voices with arrest and detention, including prominent actress and translator Taraneh Alidoosti, in an effort to chill anti-government sentiments. The UN Human Rights Council established a new fact-finding mission in November 2022 to investigate the deteriorating human rights situation in Iran.
Free expression online—already highly restricted in Iran—came under additional threat. Two weeks before Amini’s death, Iranian authorities passed three articles of the Internet User Protection Bill, restricting access to and use of the internet and placing Iran’s internet infrastructure under the control of the security services. As the protests erupted the Iranian government also curtailed the flow of news, information, and platforms to express dissent by shuttering news outlets, jailing and threatening journalists (including those based abroad), and disrupting or slowing internet access. While Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube were already banned in Iran, access to Instagram and WhatsApp was restricted across all major internet providers on September 21, 2022. Netblocks documented internet disruptions in Zahedan, Sistan, Baluchestan, and Kurdistan Province.
The number of writers and intellectuals in Iran’s prisons swelled, representing a more than twofold increase from 22 to 57. A large proportion of the new cases in 2022 took place after the start of the protests in September, and involved either the pre-emptive detention of known voices of dissent (a number of whom had been previously imprisoned), or the targeting of writers and artists who expressed support for the protestors via their writings or music.
A significant number of female writers jailed globally, 16 of 42, were held in Iran, and this number increased from previous years. While we have previously noted the tendency of Iranian authorities to jail women who write or express critical views regarding the laws and practices that restrict women’s rights, this practice escalated in 2022 in the wake of the women-led protests. This increase reflects the reality that women, including Iran’s creative community of writers and artists, have been at the forefront of the 2022 anti-government protest movement, either actively and/or by writing in support of it.
Writers at Risk: Key Cases and Trends
The Iranian government continued to punish dissent and criticism, often deploying charges based on national security or “propaganda against the state” to crack down on free expression. Several rappers, explicitly targeted because of their criticism of the government, have been charged with offenses that potentially carry the death penalty. A large number of writers and poets, ostensibly targeted because of their writing or expression in support of the protests, faced shorter periods of detention, including the poet and theater director Amirhossein Barimani, literary writer and commentator Farshid Ghorbanpour, and poets Mona Borzouei, Behnaz Amani, Atefeh Chaharmahalian, Behrouz Yasemi, and Saeed Heleichi. Individuals arrested were frequently subjected to violations of due process and human rights, including mistreatment in custody. While some were released without conditions, others have faced charges or have been released on bail, with possible charges hanging over their heads. Their arrest and detention also sends a broader threatening message to the creative community, encouraging self-censorship rather than overt opposition to the government.
PEN America’s 2011 Freedom to Write Award honoree Nasrin Sotoudeh was released on a brief medical parole in 2021 that has been repeatedly extended. This dispensation is subject to regular review and Sotoudeh was threatened with being returned to prison in 2022, most often after speaking to or writing for international media outlets. Author, activist, and former political prisoner Narges Mohammadi was given an additional sentence of eight years and 70 lashes in January 2022. She continued to speak out from Evin prison—often as part of a group of female political prisoners who made statements collectively—following the upsurge in demonstrations, demanding basic human rights and protesting against abusive conditions for detainees.
The government’s concerted crackdown on the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA) continued in 2022. Although writer, IWA leader, and 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Awardee Keyvan Bajan was released in March, his co-honoree and writer Reza Khandan Mahabadi, was kept behind bars (apart from a brief medical furlough in early 2022 after he contracted COVID-19 while in prison) despite pre–existing medical conditions; he remained in prison until his release in a general amnesty in February 2023. Their fellow Freedom to Write honoree, poet and filmmaker Baktash Abtin, died a tragic and preventable death in custody on January 8, 2022, after authorities repeatedly refused to provide him necessary medical care. Labor activists, writers, translators, and IWA members Keyvan Mohtadi and Anisha Asadollahi were detained in May 2022; Asadollahi was released on bail in August while Mohtadi was sentenced to a six-year prison term in January 2023 on specious charges of collusion and propaganda against the state. Late in the year, several current board members of the IWA were detained for around a month before being released on bail in early January 2023, including poets Aida Amidi, Roozbeh Sohani, and Alireza Adineh; their colleague Ali Asadollahi was released in February.
Hossein Ronaghi, a blogger who was detained on September 24, was also subjected to ill-treatment in custody. Ronaghi, who has pre-existing medical conditions and had already lost one of his kidneys from torture during a previous politically-motivated imprisonment, suffered severe beatings and was denied medical care. He was released on bail into hospital in late November, after a 65-day hunger strike. Ronaghi, his family, and his friends received threats and harassment following his release. Literary writer and former political prisoner Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee was arrested on September 26 at her home and assaulted during the arrest by security forces. She was charged with “assembly and collusion, as well as propaganda against the state” for her social media activities. Poet and writer Mehdi Bahman, arrested on October 11, was sentenced to death on charges of espionage, the Revolutionary Court that handed down the sentence cited a television interview Bahman gave to an Israeli TV channel in April; he remained behind bars at year’s end.
The Iranian government also targeted artists and singers/songwriters whose work was critical of ruling authorities and explicitly addressed either political or social themes. Saman Yasin, a Kurdish rapper, was arrested on October 2 in a home raid, tortured during his detention, and charged on October 29 with mohrabeh, or “enmity against God,” a crime that carries the death sentence. This development raised alarm with international bodies such as the UN. Toomaj Salehi, a songwriter and well-known rapper who was first arrested in September 2021 and given a suspended sentence in early 2022, was re-arrested on October 30, 2022 after he published music and social media posts expressing support for the protests. He was held in solitary confinement and severely tortured in custody. He also faces charges that could lead to the death penalty.
Writers advocating for ethnic or religious minority rights continue to be particularly targeted in Iran. In January 2022 Kurdish language teacher and rights advocate Zahra Mohammadi began her prison sentence of five years for “founding or leading an organization that aims to disrupt national security.” Kurdish researcher Mozghan Kavousi, who belongs to the Yarsani religious minority, was detained for four months beginning in September and later sentenced to five years and five months in prison on charges of “assembly and collusion,” “insulting the Supreme Leader of Iran,” and “propaganda against the regime.” Baha’i writer and poet Mahvash Sabet was arrested in July 2022 as part of a crackdown on the minority and sentenced to 10 years in prison in November on the same charges as Zahra Mohammadi. While imprisoned, she spent extended periods in solitary confinement.
A prominent writer and human rights defender, Narges Mohammadi has been in and out of prison for much of the last decade in retaliation for her support of the rights of women, political prisoners, and ethnic minorities in Iran.
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