Mahvash Sabet by Lucy Popescu

Lucy Popescu

Mahvash Sabet


On 31 July, Iranian authorities rearrested the poet Mahvash Sabet (LR, December 2014; March 2016) together with two other former members of the long-disbanded Yaran-i-Iran (‘Friends of Iran’) group, Fariba Kamalabadi and Afif Naemi, on unfounded ‘spying’ charges. All three are members of Iran’s largest religious minority, the Bahá’í. The authorities sent Sabet to the notorious Evin prison, where she was previously imprisoned. PEN is seriously concerned for Sabet’s health amid the continued prevalence of Covid-19 in prisons and deliberate medical negligence on the part of the Iranian authorities.

The Bahá’í, have suffered systematic, state-sponsored persecution since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The Bahá’í faith emerged after a split in Shia Islam in the 19th century. It originated in Iran but is now banned there. Adherents are not allowed to work in government offices and are denied the opportunity to study at Iranian universities. Other forms of discrimination include the denial of pensions and rightful inheritances, the restriction of access to publishing and copying facilities for Bahá’í literature, and the unlawful confiscation and destruction of Bahá’í properties, including holy places. Muslims who associate with Bahá’ís often suffer intimidation. Islamic fundamentalists view the progressive positions on women’s rights and education held by the Bahá’ís as an affront to Islam.

The arrests come amid a vicious crackdown on the Bahá’í people. The authorities have detained several Bahá’í activists, demolishing their houses, and closed down dozens of Bahá’í businesses. According to media sources, Iran’s Intelligence Ministry has alleged that the three detainees were linked to the Bahá’í centre in Israel and had collected and transferred information there. The Bahá’í World Centre, the community’s spiritual and administrative heart, is located in the twin cities of Acre and Haifa in Israel. Although there was a Bahá’í presence there before the founding of the state of Israel, the Iranian authorities have long used groundless ‘spying’ allegations against the Bahá’í community in Iran.

Sabet is a teacher and prominent poet who previously spent almost a decade in prison because of her religious beliefs. She 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 of 1979, Sabet was fired from her job and blocked from working in public education, like thousands of other Iranian Bahá’í teachers. She served for fifteen years as director of the Bahá’í Institute for Higher Education, which provides alternative higher education for Bahá’í youth.

Although Yaran-i-Iran was formed with the full knowledge of the government, its entire membership was arrested in 2008. Previously, Sabet had been detained on 5 March of that year for activities aimed at supporting the human rights of the Bahá’í community. The seven members of the group were charged with espionage, propaganda against the Islamic Republic, the establishment of an illegal administration, cooperation with Israel, sending secret documents outside the country, acting against the security of the country and ‘committing corruption on earth’. In August 2010, each defendant was sentenced to twenty years’ imprisonment.

Sabet was awarded the 2017 PEN International Writer of Courage Award. She was released in September of the same year. Sabet began writing poetry in prison ‘as a coping mechanism’. A collection of her work, entitled Prison Poems, was published in English (adapted by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani from translations by Violette and Ali Nakhjavani) by George Roland. One poem, ‘Lights Out’, offers a vivid portrait of her incarceration:

Weary but wakeful, feverish but still
fixed on the evasive bulb that winks on the wall,
thinking surely it’s time for lights out,
longing for darkness, for the total black-out.
Trapped in distress, caught in this bad dream,
the dust under my feet untouchable as shame,
flat on the cold ground, a span for a bed,
lying side by side, with a blanket on my head.
And the female guards shift, keeping vigil till dawn,
eyes moving everywhere, watching everyone,
sounds of the rosary, the round of muttered words,
fish lips moving, the glance of a preying bird.
Till another hour passes in friendly chat,
in soft talk of secrets or a sudden spat,
with some snoring, others wheezing
some whispering, rustling, sneezing –
filling the space with coughs and groans,
suffocated sobs, incessant moans –
You can’t see the sorrow after lights out.
I long for the dark, total black-out.

Readers may like to send appeals calling on the Iranian authorities to release Mahvash Sabet and her Bahá’í colleagues and end its crackdown on the Bahá’í community in Iran, and urging that further measures be taken to enshrine fully the right to freedom of expression in law in Iran, as provided for under Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Iran is a state party.

Appeals to be addressed to:

His Excellency Mr Mohsen Baharvand
Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran
Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran
16 Prince’s Gate
London SW7 1PT
Fax:  +44 20 7589 4440

Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Eje’i
Head of the Judiciary
c/o Public Relations Office
4 Deadend of 1 Azizi, Vali Asr Street
Tehran, Islamic Republic of Iran

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