In August 2020, Sedigeh Vasmaghi, a poet, women’s rights activist and lawyer was sentenced to one year in prison for signing a petition criticizing police brutality against protestors who had participated in demonstrations in November 2019. This sentence has been added to a five-year prison term served on her in 2017, making a total of six years. PEN International considers the sentences to be a clear breach of Sedigeh Vasmaghi’s right to freedom of expression and calls for them to be rescinded.

Sedigheh Vasmaghi is a poet, writer, and legal scholar who has written on a broad sweep of political and social issues, including women’s rights. She is one of a small number of women who have taught Islamic law in Iran, and her publications include Women, Jurisprudence, Islam issued in 2014 and translated into English and German although banned in her home country. Vasmaghi is also a poet and published her first poetry collection, Praying for Rain, in 1989, for which she received the 1991 Best Book Award by the University of Al-Zahra, Tehran. Since then, she has published five collections of poetry in addition to several academic books. She has also translated classical Arabic poetry to Persian.

Vasmaghi’s outspoken commentary has led to her constant surveillance and harassment over the decades. For instance, in 1997 she was served a two-month prison term for an article on discussions between a government deputy and a British official, a sentence that was quashed by the Appeal Court, after international pressure by human rights groups including Amnesty International. The harassment continued. Then in February 2011, the Iranian Security Ministry issued an order for Vasmaghi’s arrest. She went into hiding before fleeing the country in March 2011 for Germany where she took up a post of guest professor at the department of Islamic Studies, University of Göttingen, in the department of Islamic Studies. In 2012, she moved to Uppsala in Sweden as an International Cities of Refuge (ICORN) resident. When her residency ended in 2014, she stayed on as a research fellow at Uppsala University.

Then on 14 October 2017, Vasmaghi, along with her husband, left Sweden to return to Iran. On her arrival she was detained for several hours at Tehran’s International Airport before being released to appear before the Tehran Revolutionary Court on 22 October. During the 10-minute hearing, the judge mentioned a previous court ruling pronounced against the writer before her departure abroad, as well as her opposition to the practice of stoning women found guilty of adultery. Vasmaghi was taken to Evin prison, then released on bail on 4 November 2017. Vasmaghi’s appeal was held on 16 May 2018 and she was given a suspended sentence. In September 2019, she was banned from leaving the country.

Despite this, Vasmaghi continued her political activism. In June 2020 she was served with a court summons related to a petition that she had signed alongside over 70 others protesting alleged police brutality against demonstrators who had taken part in rallies in November 2019 against oil price rises. The petition implicated police in the deaths of hundreds of the protestors. The court stated that there had been no evidence of brutality and that the petition was politically motivated. Vasmaghi refused to attend the court hearing that was held on 4 August, instead issuing a lengthy statement in which she questioned the legitimacy of the court to hear her case. In it she also referred to other accusations levied against her including talking to Persian-language media outside Iran, recommending negotiations between the USA and Iran and for signing another petition earlier in 2019 calling for the separation of religion from state. She was sentenced to one year in prison. Vasmaghi is appealing against the sentence. For previous actions by PEN International on the case in 2017 click here. 

PEN International is alarmed about the large number of writers and activists in Iran who have been detained or imprisoned solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression. PEN International’s 2019 Case List includes a number of writers in prison and on trial in Iran. This is in violation of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s obligations under international human rights law, mainly through restricting the rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. PEN International’s concerns for these imprisoned writers is made more acute in light of the COVID-19 outbreak and reports of violence in prisons.