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Award winning Iranian poet unjustly jailed

PEN Sydney statement for Mahvash Sabet

29 December 2022

PEN Sydney strongly condemns the detention of Baha’i writer and poet Mahvash Sabet in Evin prison, Tehran who is currently being held in solitary confinement. We call on the Iranian authorities to immediately release her and other Baha’is unjustly detained in Iran, including Fariba Kamalabadi. Sabet was awarded the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize and was recognised as an International Writer of Courage for her powerful book of Prison Poems, written during a previous 10 year unjust imprisonment.

Sabet was arrested on 31 July 2022 and has again been sentenced to 10 years in prison.  She was charged with disturbing national security, charges that have never been supported by any proof. She has previously endured 10 years in prison for the same charges, which in 2008 lawyer and Nobel Laureate Dr Shirin Ebadi said that there was not a “shred of evidence” for the accusations.

As a result of a previous 10 year imprisonment, Sabet suffers from ongoing health conditions, including tuberculous of the bone. She has been denied any medication since her detention. Sabet also suffers from asthma and while she survived October 2022’s fire in Evin Prison, she is nearing 70 years of age and her health is deteriorating. Sabet has certificates from medical specialists stating that she needs regular medical attention and that she does not have the health condition to serve a prison term. She has not been allowed any visitors since her initial arrest and as of 21 November 2022, when an initial hearing took place, Sabet’s family has had no contact with her. They have expressed grave concerns for her life and safety, including the circumstances of her imprisonment. PEN Sydney calls for Sabet to be moved immediately out of solitary confinement.

Sabet was most recently arrested along with two other members of the long-disbanded “Yaran-i-Iran” or “Friends of Iran” who tended to the basic pastoral needs of the Baha’i community until 2008.  Their detention comes amongst a recent vicious crackdown on members of the Baha’i community that has seen homes destroyed by authorities and many arbitrary arrests.

Sabet has been a teacher, school principal and prominent poet.  Following the Islamic Revolution in 1979 she was barred from working in the public sector, like thousands of other Baha’is, and was excluded from working in public schools.  She then served for 15 years as director of the Baha’i Institute for Higher Education, which provides access to higher education for Baha’i youth who are otherwise systematically blocked from attending Iranian universities.


The Perfume of Poetry – Mahvash Sabet – from Prison Poems

Alone under the bare branches

 of the pomegranate tree,

I feel the weight of these captive women

lie heavily on me.


A group of them murmur in a corner

beneath a broken wall,

while younger ones, distracted, flutter

to and fro and wail.


One of the captives perches a while

here under my poor shade,

her fluting notes rise only to fall again

disconsolate and sad.


Others stoop over their laundry,

do their washing in rows,

bending beneath the line already bowed

under the weight of clothes.


Autumn has crept upon us unawares

and stripped our fruitless boughs,

but the spring of your kind hand still

strokes our wintry brows.


One old woman can barely stand, but you

still rise in her defence,

singing out how wronged she is, how lonely,

bowed by innocence.


But all I do is drown in the drained drops

from the veins of a girl.

All I can do is dissolve at the losses of one

too many young to be so pale.


And when a woman is forced to stamp

the warrant with her thumb,

I forget my own shames, choke at hers –

humiliated, heart-wrung


And if another escapes execution somehow,

the chance of a rare reprieve,

my heart leaps up at her happiness, thrills

at her cries of relief.


And if a weary addict moans without ceasing,

moans and cries through the night,

I despair with her, grow ever more anguished

till the break of light,


And what is why I need a balm to perfume

this camphor-tasting bread,

a light to cast on those yellowed faces,

a breath to lift these heads.


That’s why I send my waves and ripples

across this stagnant pond,

its surface seething, its depths torpid

with anger, all trust gone –


I write if only to stir faint memories of flight

in these wing-bound birds,

to open the cage of the heart for a moment

trapped without words.


For how can one not faint for these women,

beaten so brutally?

How can one not fear for them, suffering

such tyrannical cruelty?


Alone, under the bare branches

of the pomegranate tree,

I feel the weight of these captive women

lie heavily on me.

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