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After poet dies of COVID in Iranian jail, activists blame Tehran

Reporters Without Borders says dissident poet and filmmaker Baktash Abtin was ‘deprived of the necessary care’ and shackled to his hospital bed

Iranian activist, filmmaker and poet Baktash Abtin. (YouTube/Screenshot)
Iranian activist, filmmaker and poet Baktash Abtin. (YouTube/Screenshot)

PARIS (AFP) — Dissident Iranian poet and filmmaker Baktash Abtin died in detention in Tehran after falling ill with COVID-19, rights groups said Saturday, angrily blaming the Islamic Republic’s leadership for his death.

“Baktash Abtin has died,” the Iranian Writers Association (IWA) said in a statement on its Telegram channel after the author was put into an induced coma in hospital earlier in the week.

Paris-based media rights group Reporters Without Borders (RSF) confirmed his death in a statement on Twitter, saying he “had been unjustly sentenced to six years in prison and was in detention in hospital, ill with COVID-19 and deprived of the necessary care.”

“RSF blames the regime’s authorities for his death,” it added, posting a picture of Abtin in a striped Iranian prison uniform, shackled by his leg to a hospital bed.

Hadi Ghaemi, the executive director of the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI), said “Baktash Abtin is dead because Iran’s government wanted to muzzle him in jail.”

“This is a preventable tragedy. Iran’s judicial chief [Gholam-Hossein Mohseni-Ejeie] must be held accountable,” Ghaemi added.

Abtin had been convicted with two IWA colleagues in 2019 on charges of “assembly and collusion against national security” and for “propaganda against the system.” He had begun serving his sentence in Tehran’s Evin prison in 2020.

Along with fellow defendants Keyvan Bajan and Reza Khandan Mahabadi, Abtin had in September 2021 been given the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award by writers’ rights group PEN America.

“Our worst fears materialized today, as we mourn the utterly preventable death of Baktash Abtin,” said PEN America’s chief executive officer Suzanne Nossel.

“COVID is a natural killer, but Abtin’s death was aided and abetted by the Iranian government every step of the way,” she said, adding that he was previously denied medical treatment, underlying conditions were ignored and he was at times shackled to his bed.

There has been growing concern in recent months among activists over deaths of prisoners in detention in Iran, especially in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic which campaigners fear is raging in Iranian prisons.

Mahmood Amiry-Moghaddam, director of the Norway-based Iran Human Rights NGO, said that “the government which imprisoned this author, and [Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei, are directly responsible for the murder of Baktash Abtin. They must be held accountable.”

In this undated frame grab taken from video shared with The Associated Press by a self-identified hacker group called “The Justice of Ali,” a guard beats a prisoner, at Evin prison in Tehran, Iran. (The Justice of Ali via AP)

In September, Amnesty International published a study accusing Iran of failing to provide accountability for at least 72 deaths in custody since January 2010, “despite credible reports that they resulted from torture or other ill-treatment.”

A group calling itself Edalat-e Ali (Justice of Ali) last August posted videos of leaked surveillance footage from Tehran’s Evin prison showing guards beating or mistreating inmates.

At least 11 writers are known to be either currently imprisoned in Iran or living with an unserved prison sentence as they await a summons to jail, according to a list compiled by CHRI.

The IWA was founded in May 1968 under the imperial rule of the Shah by an independent group of writers based in Iran to fight against state censorship of literature in the country.

The charges against Abtin and his two colleagues related to work on documents over the history of the IWA and participation in memorial ceremonies remembering members killed in the so-called “chain murders” of intellectuals in the 1990s that activists blame on the government.

Nossel said: “We will remember Abtin as a gifted poet and filmmaker, but also as a courageous thinker and an honorable advocate.”

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