March 2022

Baktash Abtin’s death highlights Iranian regime’s abuse of journalists

Image from Al Jazeera

Baktash Abtin, an Iranian writer, poet, and documentary filmmaker who was also on the board of directors of the Iranian writers’ association, died in January while chained to his bed in a Tehran hospital.

Abtin is the latest of several Iranian journalists who have been tortured and died in prison, including the blogger Satta Beheshti, Iranian-Canadian journalist Zahra Kazami, Hoda Saber, and, most recently, Kian Adelpour.

Abtin was initially interrogated by Iranian authorities in 2015 for writing a book and making a film about the history of the Iranian Writers’ Association, which is critical of the Iranian regime over its human rights abuses. He was subsequently charged and detained for several days for spreading propaganda and colluding against the state.

The Iranian Writers’ Association issued a statement to protest Abtin’s detention and interrogation, calling it a violation of his human rights.

During his initial detention, several security agents attacked Abtin’s home and confiscated his manuscript and film, along with his computer, mobile phone and other documents.

In May 2019, Abtin was again summoned to Iran’s notorious Evin Prison, together with fellow Iranian writers Reza Khandan Mahabad and Keyvan Bajhan, where they were sentenced to five years in prison for illegal assembly and collusion against national security.

They were also sentenced to one year for spreading propaganda against the state and for participating in a memorial for two other famous Iranian writers, Mohamad Mokhtari and Mohamad Ja’far Pouyandeh, both of whom were murdered in 1998 by the Iranian regime.

While imprisoned in Evin Prison in April 2021, Abtin showed possible symptoms of Covid-19 and was transferred to the prison’s clinic. But he was returned to his cell – where he voluntarily quarantined to protect other inmates - without receiving proper treatment. 

Even as Abtin’s health continued to deteriorate, and despite knowing he also suffered from diabetes, prison officials waited until October before allowing his family to take him to a hospital outside the prison to receive urgent medical attention. When he was finally taken to Tehran’s Taleghani Hospital, his lungs had been severely damaged by Covid-19. He was placed in a medically induced coma in the hospital’s intensive care unit in December and died on 8 January.

Reporters Without Borders said Abtin had been denied medical treatment by the Iranian authorities and asked the United Nations human rights body to set up an independent international commission to investigate his death.

PEN America, which awarded Abtin its 2021 PEN/ Barbey Freedom to Write Award last September, called his death a “tragedy” and “utterly preventable”.

Human Rights Watch called Abtin’s death a tragic act by the Iranian regime, while the Iranian Writers’ Association said it held the regime responsible for his death. 

Currently, 21 journalists are imprisoned in Iran. Among them are 11 women, including Narges Mohamadi, who is also a well-known human rights activist. Mohamadi is in need of urgent medical attention which the Iranian authorities are denying her. She is in danger of meeting the same fate as Abtin. International human rights groups must demand that the Iranian regime allow her to be treated at a hospital.