Iran: Free Two Poets Jailed for Exercising Right to Expression

Over One Hundred Poets Rally with PEN in Support of Iranian Colleagues
Pinsky, Rankine, and more urge Ayatollah to halt flogging of poets convicted for their work

NEW YORK—More than one hundred of the most prominent names in poetry, including Robert Pinsky, Claudia Rankine, Billy Collins, John Ashbery, and Tracy K. Smith, today sent a joint letter with PEN American Center to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of Iran, urging him to nullify the conviction and harsh sentencing of poets Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi.

Ms. Ekhtesari and Mr. Mousavi were first detained in December 2013 and endured more than a month of intense interrogation in solitary confinement at Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. They were released on bail in January 2014. Last week, they were sentenced to 11.5 years and 9 years in prison, respectively, on charges including “insulting sanctities” and “propaganda against the state” stemming from their poetry. Under Iran’s legal system, the two have 20 days to appeal the decision from the date of conviction while they await re-arrest.

Ekhtesari and Mousavi have also been sentenced to 99 lashes each for the act of shaking hands with unrelated members of the opposite sex at international literary gatherings.

“Iran has a long and proud literary history, and the work of these poets deserves to be celebrated as a contribution to that rich tradition,” the letter reads. “Their harsh sentences form part of a disturbing pattern of escalating pressure on artists and cultural figures.”

Books of poetry by both Ekhtesari and Mousavi had previously received permits from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and had been published legally in Iran.

The conviction of the two poets has been widely decried by rights groups and the press as part of a wider attempt by Khamenei, himself a scholar of poetry, to assert the country’s hardline approach to countering dissent and to deter creative Iranians from testing the bounds of censorship and repression through their work.

“For Iran to begin flogging poets just as it moves toward a more integrated and visible role in world affairs sends the worst possible signal about what Iranian leaders want their country to stand for at a time when all eyes are on them,” said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN American Center. “It is not often that poets join together in a blunt political statement, but this sentence is an affront not just to governments or advocates, but to all who understand that without creativity a culture and society cannot thrive.”

His Excellency Ayatollah Ali Khamenei
Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran

Your Excellency,

We the undersigned poets join with PEN American Center to appeal for the immediate nullification of the sentences given to poets Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi. As you know, Ms. Ekhtesari and Mr. Mousavi have been condemned to 11.5 years and 9 years, respectively, in prison for charges related to their poetry, including “insulting sanctities” and “propaganda against the state.” The two poets have also been sentenced to 99 lashes each for the act of shaking hands with unrelated members of the opposite sex. They were first detained in December 2013 and endured more than a month of interrogation while in prison.

We are deeply concerned by the inhumane sentences levied against Ms. Ekhtesari and Mr. Mousavi for the simple act of expressing themselves by creating art. The act of writing poetry is no crime. Freedom of expression, a fundamental right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, allows creativity to flourish and promotes the creation of great literature. Iran has a long and proud literary history. As a poet and a scholar of poetry, we appeal to you not to allow this legacy to be clouded by cruel and unwarranted treatment of these two writers. The work of these poets deserves to be celebrated as a contribution to that rich tradition, not punished. Their harsh sentences form part of a disturbing pattern of escalating pressure on artists and cultural figures, as well as journalists including the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian.

We urge you to immediately abrogate the sentences handed down to Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi.

Signed,

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