Author jailed for writing ethnic romance as Iran's censors crack down on dissent

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The Independent Online

While much of the world responded with scepticism and confusion to yesterday's parliamentary elections in Iran, inside the country coverage has been crippled by the tightening of an already oppressive regime.

The limits on freedom of speech are not confined to the election period though, but part of a censorial onslaught being felt across Iran's cultural landscape.

The closure of newspapers and the jailing of journalists has become commonplace. But for the first time, a prize-winning young novelist has been sentenced to jail for the behaviour of his fictional characters. Directives from the National Security Council containing the latest Islamic guidelines land on the desks of Iranian editors once or twice a week, and they are in no doubt that they must comply. They have been told in the past that any mention of Hizbollah, or of the Syrian President Bashar Assad, is strictly off-limits.

But a recent classified directive broke new ground by decreeing in minute detail how to report on every story. It was unprecedented even for the radical nationalist government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Iranian sources say it is part of an almost surreal trend of censorship.

Even the clergy has not been spared. Hadi Ghaemi, the New York-based co-ordinator of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, calls it a "modern inquisition". "The situation for literature is much worse," said a source.

Yaghoub Yaadali, a 36-year-old television director, received a suspended jail sentence last summer on charges of "spreading lies, defamation and insulting a tribal minority".

In his book, The Rules of Restlessness, a fictional character has an affair with a woman from an ethnic Bakhtiari village. It won Iran's highest honour for literature, the Golshiri award, in 2004. As with any other work, it was only published after obtaining permission from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

When he was sentenced to three months in jail, suspended for nine months, last September it caused a sensation in Iranian intellectual circles. He had already spent 47 days in prison. The judge ordered him to write four articles on "cultural and artistic personalities, each at a minimum length of one page on size A4 paper, to be published every six months" at his own expense.

His supporters were dumbstruck when, on appeal last month, the court toughened the sentence to actual imprisonment. "It's unheard of," said one Iranian. The writer was ordered to begin his sentence before the Iranian new year, (21 March) but hopes that if he completes the articles the jail time will be suspended.

The censor's verdict is even falling on new editions of published works. The Culture Ministry demands changes, and if the demand is not met, halts publication.

One author of a children's book was told: "You wrote about a duck named 'Brave', but the duck isn't brave, the frog is brave." He responded that he couldn't change the title because it was translated from another language, and in any case it was a children's book. He also pointed out that it was the second edition.

A television presenter got into hot water for writing a poem which said "in my dreams I think of you in the middle of the night" because of perceived sexual innuendo. The verse was removed.

On 6 March, the general director of public libraries, Mansour Vaezi, warned a conference of library directors that their libraries would be purged of inappropriate works.

Academic freedom has also been severely restricted in the three years since President Ahmadinejad came to power. University faculty members deemed to be "problematic" are being forced into retirement, and even sacked.

A Tehran cleric, Hojatoleslam Hadi Ghabel, was ordered to be defrocked by a special court in the holy city of Qom, for criticising President Ahmadinejad and the spiritual leadership. He spent 47 days in jail awaiting trial and was given a three-year prison sentence.

"This is a modern inquisition by the Islamic authorities," said Mr Ghaemi. "If they get away with it this time, there's no saying where it will end."

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