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English PEN: Yousef Azizi Banitorof, Ahwazi Arab writer

Writer, journalist and human rights activist Yousef Azizi was sentenced on 2 July 2008 to five years in prison for 'acting against national security', 'propaganda against the regime', 'incitement to rebellion' and 'relations with foreign officials', after a two-year trial. He is believed to be charged for his reporting on the allegedly excessive use of force by security forces against demonstrators from the Arab community in the southwestern region of Khuzestan (known locally as Al-Ahwaz).

Yousef Azizi is a member of the Arab ethnic minority, and is known for his writing in support of the rights of Arabs of Khuzestan. He is a founding member of the Iranian Writers Association and has published several books in both Arabic and Farsi.

Yousef Azizi was first arrested on 25 April 2005, and held in solitary confinement until his release on bail on 28 June 2005. Whilst on bail he and his family were subject to constant harassment and surveillance. The sentence was upheld by an appeals court in November 2008, and on 3 November 2008 Azizi left Iran to escape arrest. He remains abroad. English PEN would consider Yousef Azizi to be in great danger if he were to be repatriated, and continues to fear for the safety of his family who remain in Iran.

Yousef Azizi has been an Honorary Member of English PEN since May 2009.

"What PEN Means to Me" by Yousef Azizi

(April 2009)

I had heard of the International PEN, before I became a member of the Iranian Writers' Association in 1978, since it supported Iranian writers who were thrown in Shah's jails for defending unconditional freedom of speech. Naturally, I became more acquainted with this organization after the Iranian revolution in 1979 since the members of our association became easy targets to oppression and persecution as the pressure increased during the thirty years of the new rulers reign.

Being one of their victims, I am a good example of this. I was imprisoned, and along with my children, denied basic human rights in a country which ought to have been our home. When I was released from the solitary confinement near the end of June 2005, I was told, by some colleagues of mine, that the International PEN had declared its solidarity with my cause in a statement issued after their meeting in Portugal that year.

This solidarity had a positive effect on my morale. It strengthened me as I faced repeatedly the Iranian Intelligence Service's summons and finally the Revolutionary court which went on for more than three years. At last, in July 2008, I was sentenced to five years in prison for no other guilt than criticizing the violence exercised by Iranian security forces against peaceful demonstrations in April 2005 in the Arab minority region of Al-Ahwaz, southwest of Iran.

Since then, I have felt that there are strong ties connecting me, an Iranian Arab writer prosecuted in his home, and the International PEN. A connection that was only made richer after I personally met some of the characters in this organization, especially the English PEN. I would also like to use this occasion to recall with great appreciation what the English playwright Harold Pinter did in defending prosecuted and imprisoned Iranian writers.

Iranian writers and journalists have been suffering from extreme censorship of newspapers, media, and books, while what the non-Persian ethnicities - such as Arabs, Kurds, Azeris, Baluch, and Turkaman - have been made to endure such violation of their basic rights as prohibition of education in the language of their ancestors, which is in contradiction with all international laws and the Iranian constitution.

While non-Persian ethnicities comprise about 55% of Iran's population, they - all combined - own less than 2% of the media, publishing companies, and bookshops. The national budget, 90% of which is secured from the petroleum extracted from Al-Ahwaz region, is spent on developing and spreading the Persian language in Iran, along with Afghanistan and Tajikistan.

In this regard, a reform must take place to ensure the equality in linguistic and cultural representation of the Iranian ethnicities.