The Iranian writer Ali Reza Jabari was sentenced to four years in prison and a public lashing in 2003 for ‘immorality’ and ‘alcohol- related crimes’. His continued incarceration must be considered in the context of the ongoing struggle between the conservative hardliners, represented by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the pragmatists, represented by President Khatami. Tehran’s administration is subject to mood swings, and writers falling foul of the hardliners rarely know which group will decide their fate.
According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO), Iran’s relations with most countries have improved since President Khatami was first elected in 1997. Relations between the UK and Iran were restored after Iran gave assurances in 1998 that it had no intention of threatening the life of Salman Rushdie. Ambassadors were exchanged in 1999 and the UK’s current policy towards Iran is one of ‘critical engagement’.
There are still serious concerns in the international community about Iran’s poor human rights record (though there have been some improvements), especially over the inadequacy of judicial proceedings and restrictions on freedom of expression (particularly newspaper closures and the arrest of journalists). In January 2001 harsh sentences were handed down to various intellectuals and journalists who attended a conference in Berlin the previous August at which reform in Iran was discussed. A year later the sentences were reduced on appeal and charges of acting against national security were dropped, but several journalists remain in prison. In June 2003 thousands took to the streets of Tehran voicing criticism of the regime and frustration at the lack of reform. According to the FCO, around four thousand protestors were arrested and others were apprehended by pro-regime vigilantes. Several journalists were among those detained.
The conservatives, who control several key organs of state, have put up stiff resistance to change, and through the judiciary have been responsible for the closure of around ninety newspapers and other publications over the past three years. In January 2003 a new commission was set up by religious hardliners to monitor the ‘illegal’ news websites set up to replace the reformist newspapers.
Last December the UN approved, with UK support, a resolution highlighting the increased persecution of journalists, parliamentarians, students, clerics and academics in Iran, for the peaceful expression of political views. The EU has also made it clear that relations with Iran will move forward only if Iran takes action to address certain problems, including human-rights abuses.
Jabari is a translator and poet, and a fieelance contributor to several independent newspapers, including Adineh and the Canada-based Farsi-language Shahrvand. He has translated more than thirty books from English into Farsi, ranging from literature and literary criticism to books about politics, economics, social thought, philosophy, and industrial engineering. Amongst others, he has translated Isabel Allende, Rosalind Miles and Toni Morrison. His sentence, originally four years, was reduced to three on appeal. It is believed that Jabari is being targeted for his membership of the Iranian Writers’ Organisation and for sending material to foreign-based news websites. His lawyer was not allowed to attend his trial.
In February 2004, Jabari was reportedly summoned to court from prison in order to answer new charges of ‘publishing lies with intent to disturb public opinion’ as a result of two other articles about his treatment in detention and his criticism of the parliamentary elections that had just been held. It is thought he was given an additional sentence.
Previously, Jabari was arrested on 28 December 2002, three days after the publication of a critical interview he gave to Shahwand. He was arrested at his office in Tehran by individuals in civilian clothes and escorted to his home, which was searched. Videos, books and his computer’s hard drive were seized. He was held in solitary confinement until his release on 6 February 2003, and rearrested in March.
In recent months, members of the English branch of PEN (the international association of writers) have received letters from Jabari. From our correspondence we have learned that he is currently held with common criminals, rather than political prisoners, in Rajaee-shah Prison in Tehran, which Jabari jokingly refers to as ‘Ajayebshahr’, or ‘the city of wonders’. The conditions there are said to be particularly harsh.
In one letter he writes: ‘Here in prison no one knows anythng about real politics, social affairs, literature, human relations, and everyone waits for the “time7′ to come and the “electric door of prison” to be undermined. . . . There is no patriotism, no luridness, no health, no rights here; nearly everybody use[s] opiums, and some abuse each other, [which] increases the threat of Aids and hepatitis. Because of noise and being crowd[ed], I cannot translate or write anything and I sometimes fear that I am losing [my] memory; but I try to write in pieces, sometimes to write poems.’
Jabari goes on to describe how he is allowed to work in the prison library. In spite of the fact that the work exposes him to ‘much dust and dirt every day’ (which puts him at risk of ‘tuberculosis and other respirational diseases’), he remains dedicated to his position ‘for the sake of accessing books, and not being idle’.
Jabari suffers from diabetes and a heart complaint and is reportedly being denied access to proper medical care.
Readers can send appeals calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Ali Reza Jabari to: The President, His Excellency Hojjatoleslam Sayed Mohammad Khatarni, and The Supreme Leader, His Excellency Ayatollah Sayed ‘Ali Khamenei, separately to the same address:
Islamic Republic of Iran