Mahvash Sabet named PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage

Mahvash Sabet named PEN Pinter International Writer of Courage

Iranian poet Mahvash Sabet has been announced as the 2017 International Writer of Courage and will share the PEN Pinter Prize with Irish writer Michael Longley.

Sabet (pictured) was released last month after being imprisoned for almost a decade in Tehran.

On Tuesday evening (10th October) Belfast-based poet Longley named Sabet as the International Writer of Courage at the PEN Pinter Prize ceremony at the British Library in London.

The PEN Pinter Prize, presented annually to a writer from Britain, the Republic of Ireland or the Commonwealth who casts an “unflinching, unswerving gaze upon the world” and shows a “fierce intellectual determination...to define the real truth of our lives and our societies”. The award was established in 2009, in tribute to the playwright Harold Pinter, and it is always shared with an International Writer of Courage, described as “a writer who is active in defence of freedom of expression, often at great risk to their own safety and liberty”.

One of the group of seven leaders in the Bahá’í faith, known as the Yaran-i-Iran (‘Friends of Iran’), Sabet was detained in 2008 along with six others, for their religion and activities related to running the affairs of the community in Iran. They were held for 20 months without charge before their trial began in January 2010, on false charges including espionage, propaganda against the Islamic Republic and acting against the security of the country.

Five months later, each of the defendants was sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment, after six brief court sessions characterised by their lack of due legal process. These sentences were later reduced to ten years each, after a delayed application of the 2013 penal code to the case. They never received official copies of the original verdict or the ruling on appeal despite repeated requests.

On 18th September this year, Sabet was the first of the group to be released from prison, having served almost a decade in detention, after which she issued a public call for the release of her six fellow detainees.

She began writing poetry in prison and a collection of her work Prison Poems, adapted from Persian by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, was published in the UK in April 2013 by George Ronald Publisher, a company founded in 1943 to make available a wider range of literature on Bahá'í subjects.

Nakhjavani described how Sabet’s poems “allowed her to speak when words were denied, to talk when no one was listening to her”.

Longley compared the poet’s confinement to a “songbird trapped in a cage”.

He said: “I am humbled to share the PEN Pinter Prize with Mahvash Sabet, an Iranian poet condemned in 2010 to 20 years in prison simply because of her Bahá’í faith and her work on behalf of the Bahá’í community: a songbird trapped in a cage.

“Mahvash is at heart a lyrical poet who sings the beauty of the world. Her imagination is rhapsodic. Her poems want to soar. The power of dictators to silence and imprison writers continues to ‘put all heaven in a rage’.”

Lady Antonia Fraser and Michael Longley, © George Torode