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.