Ayatollah Ali Hosseini Khamenei
Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran
The Office of the Supreme Leader
Tehran Province, Tehran, District 11
Islamic Republic of Iran

Supreme Leader Khamenei,

We, the undersigned free expression and human rights organizations, write to you in response to the news that poet and filmmaker Baktash Abtin was put into a medically-induced coma on January 1 as he continues to fight his most recent COVID-19 infection and remains in grave danger. We repeat our call that Abtin be given access to the best possible medical care as he battles for his life. In addition, we urge that: he and all those unjustly detained for their writing or expression be immediately and unconditionally released; that authorities refrain from summoning political prisoners to serve their sentences while the conditions inside Evin and other Iranian prisons remain unsafe; and that any who do contract COVID-19 or other serious illnesses while in jail be granted speedy access to all needed medical care or medical parole on humanitarian grounds.

The news of Abtin’s deteriorating medical condition comes amid a wave of COVID-19 infections in Iran and, in particular, in the prison system. Abtin and his codefendants Keyvan Bajan and Reza Khandan Mahabadi were convicted on abusive national security and propaganda charges stemming from actions related to their leadership of the Iranian Writers Association and advocacy against state censorship, and all three were unnecessarily summoned to begin their sentences in September 2020, even as an earlier wave of the pandemic was ravaging Iranian prisons. This is the second time Abtin has caught COVID-19 since his imprisonment in late September 2020, and his codefendant Reza Khandan Mahabadi has also been seriously ill with the virus. According to a statement issued by the Iranian Writers Association (IWA), Mr. Abtin was not transferred to a hospital for 10 days even as his health quickly deteriorated, and was further denied proper medical care or access to his family during his initial hospitalization at Taleghani hospital.

We ask that your government commit to providing Abtin with the best available expert medical care. We also urge that other political prisoners battling COVID-19 or other serious health concerns be granted timely access to adequate medical care and/or immediate release. Unfortunately, mistreatment of prisoners and denial of medical care is a systemic problem in Iranian prisons. Numerous other political prisoners have contracted COVID-19 behind bars–including Nasrin Sotoudeh and Narges Mohammadi. Nevertheless, the number of political prisoners benefiting from early or temporary releases to protect them from the rampant spread of COVID-19 in prisons since March 2020 has been negligible.

We echo the call from more than a dozen political prisoners in Ward 8 of Evin prison just a few days ago, in which they hold your government and judiciary responsible for creating the conditions whereby the lives of prisoners of conscience are put at grave risk, and appeal to international human rights organizations in joining them to push for change. In 2020, PEN America found that Iran imprisoned the fourth-highest number of writers and public intellectuals in the world, with 19 writers jailed, and countless more targeted for their expression. This crackdown on free expression is threatening the health and lives of leading members of Iran’s cultural community—its writers, poets, artists, and thinkers.

We, the undersigned organizations, condemn this disregard for basic human rights and freedom of expression, and urge that our concerns be addressed as a matter of grave urgency.


PEN America
Abdorrahman Boroumand Center for Human Rights in Iran
Artistic Freedom Initiative
Center for Human Rights in Iran
English PEN
Freedom House
Front Line Defenders
Human Rights Watch
Iran Human Rights Documentation Center
Iranian PEN Centre in Exile
Kurdpa Human Rights Organization
PEN Canada
PEN International
PEN Sydney
Project on Middle East Democracy
Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights
Siamak Pourzand Foundation
The Miaan Group