Pen America

Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi
2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award Honorees

This year, PEN America is honoring imprisoned Iranian writers Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi with the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.

Baktash Abtin, Kevyan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi are three celebrated writers who have been imprisoned by the Iranian authorities for their writing, their defense of free expression, and their peaceful opposition to state censorship. In May 2019, they were each sentenced to six years in prison on spurious national security and propaganda charges connected to their activities with the Iranian Writers Association (IWA), a writers’ group in which poet and filmmaker Abtin, novelist and journalist Bajan, and fiction writer and literary critic Khandan Mahabadi have played leading roles. Iranian authorities have cited the following activities as evidence against the three writers: attending the memorials of well-known Iranian poets and writers, circulating IWA member newsletters, and compiling a book chronicling the 50-year history of the IWA. All three writers were summoned to begin their collective 15-year sentence at Evin Prison in September 2020, even as the COVID-19 pandemic was ravaging Iranian prisons. Like many detained at Evin, Abtin and Khandan Mahabadi have both contracted the virus since their imprisonment, and all three writers suffer from medical neglect.

PEN America Chief Executive Officer Suzanne Nossel said, “Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi are embodiments of the spirit that animates our work at PEN America. They are writers who are called not only to offer prose and ideas on a page, but to live fearlessly—and sacrifice immensely in service of the liberties that underpin free thought, art, culture, and creativity. By taking up the mantle of leadership within Iran’s literary community, they have served as beacons for countless authors and thinkers whose ability to imagine, push boundaries, and challenge repression under the most dangerous conditions is fed by the knowledge that they do not stand alone. The Iranian government’s targeting of these three lions of Iran’s writing community, men whose only weapon is their intellect, marks the moral bankruptcy of a regime that is so afraid for its own survival that it has resorted to a futile effort to stamp out independent thought.”

The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award kicks off a global advocacy campaign calling for the honorees’ freedom. Past honorees include Chinese essayist Xu Zhiyong (2020); Saudi writer-activists Nouf Abdulaziz, Loujain Al-Hathloul, and Eman Al-Nafjan (2019, all conditionally freed as of 2021); and Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo (2018, freed in 2019).

Key Writing


Iran is among the world’s most restrictive countries for freedom of expression. While the human rights situation in Iran has been dire for decades, the state of freedom of expression and respect for fundamental rights in the country has deteriorated even further in recent years. Iran holds the fourth highest number of writers and intellectuals in prison globally, according to PEN America’s 2020 Freedom to Write Index. Hundreds of journalists—alongside scores of other writers, bloggers, artists, human rights defenders, and others—are currently imprisoned on politically-motivated charges in Iran, subject to a judicial system notorious for its lack of transparency, high rates of capital punishmentmedical neglect, and physical abuse. Despite promises of expanded freedoms, Hassan Rouhani’s presidency was marked by intensified repression and arbitrary political restrictions—preventing Iranians from having a voice in how they are governed. And in August 2021, Ebrahim Raisi became the country’s new president, after a June election in which all opposition had been disqualified. Raisi is notorious for his past role in human rights abuses, having been accused of involvement in mass killings of political prisoners in the 1980s. The Iranian government has also been engaged in the targeting and transnational kidnapping of dissidents, writers, and journalists outside the country, and the harassment of those individuals’ family members inside the country.