21 September 2017 – PEN International welcomes the release of teacher and poet Mahvash Sabet, one of a group of seven Baha’i leaders known as the ‘Yaran-i-Iran’ – ‘Friends of Iran’ – detained in 2008 for their faith and activities related to running the affairs of the Bahá’í community in Iran. On 18 September 2017, Sabet was the first of the group to be released from prison, having served almost a decade in detention. Following her release, she has issued a public call for the release of her six fellow detainees.
Sabet was arrested on 5 March 2008 while on a trip to Mashhad. The other six members of the group – Fariba Kamalabadi, Jamaloddin Khanjani, Afif Naeimi, Saeid Rezaie, Behrouz Tavakkoli, and Vahid Tizfahm – were arrested on 14 May 2008 at their homes in Tehran. All were imprisoned without charge until January 2010, during which they were held incommunicado for weeks and were not allowed access to legal counsel. All suffered appalling treatment and deprivations during pre-trial detention.
Charged with espionage, propaganda against the Islamic republic, the establishment of an illegal administration, co-operation with Israel, sending secret documents outside the country, acting against the security of the country, and corruption on earth, their trial began on 12 January 2010. On 14 June 2010 each of the defendants was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment after six brief court sessions characterised by their lack of due legal process. Their sentences were later reduced to 10 years each when an appeals court revoked three of the charges; however, in March 2011, the prisoners were informed of the reinstatement of their original sentences. They have never received official copies of the original verdict or the ruling on appeal despite repeated requests.
Mahvash Sabet began her professional career as a teacher and worked as a principal at several schools. She also collaborated with the National Literacy Committee of Iran. Following the “Islamic Revolution” in 1979, Sabet was fired from her job and blocked from working in public education, like thousands of other Iranian Baha’i educators. She served for 15 years as director of the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education, which provides alternative higher education for Baha’i youth. She began writing poetry while in prison, a collection of which was published in English translation on 1 April 2013. Her poems are described as ‘sometimes a means of historical documentation…; sometimes a series of portraits of other women trapped in prison with her; sometimes meditations on powerlessness, on loneliness’…. She is married and has two grown children.
Sabet is an honorary member of Austrian PEN and Danish PEN. Her case featured in PEN’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer campaign 2014. PEN International has been campaigning on behalf of Mahvash Sabet and will continue to call on the Iranian authorities to release all other writers currently imprisoned in Iran solely for exercising their right to legitimate freedom of expression.