Mahvash Sabet shares 2017 PEN Pinter Prize with Michael Longley
Bahá’í poet and teacher Mahvash Sabet has been named 2017 International Writer of Courage by Michael Longley at the PEN Pinter Prize ceremony at the British Library. Longley was announced as the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize winner in June this year.
Sabet was released in September, after being imprisoned for almost ten years in Iran. One of the group of seven Baha’i leaders known as the Yaran-i-Iran (‘Friends of Iran’), Sabet was detained in 2008 along with six others, for their faith and activities related to running the affairs of the Bahá’í community in Iran. They were held for twenty months without charge. Their trial finally began on 12 January 2010, on false charges including espionage, propaganda against the Islamic Republic and acting against the security of the country.
Five months later, on 14 June 2010, 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 18 September 2017, Sabet was the first of the group to be released from prison, having served almost a decade in detention. Following her release, she has issued a public call for the release of her six fellow detainees.
Mahvash Sabet 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. As Nakhjavani described in the introduction to the collection, ‘her poems allowed her to speak when words were denied, to talk when no one was listening to her.’
Michael Longley was chosen as the 2017 PEN Pinter Prize recipient in June by this year’s judges: Maureen Freely, Chair of Judges and President of English PEN; Antonia Fraser, historian, biographer and widow of Harold Pinter; Tom Gatti, culture editor of the New Statesman; award-winning poet Don Paterson and playwright Polly Stenham. The judges said of Longley: ‘[He] is an ideal recipient of the Pinter Prize. For decades now his effortlessly lyric and fluent poetry has been wholly suffused with the qualities of humanity, humility and compassion, never shying away from the moral complexity that comes from seeing both sides of an argument. Longley is a war poet and a love poet, a nature poet and a poet of the arts, a poet of social and cultural history.’
Michael Longley comments:
‘I am humbled to share the PEN Pinter Prize with Mahvash Sabet, an Iranian poet condemned in 2010 to twenty 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. I rejoice that she has been released from prison. Her incarceration by the Iranian authorities was a sin against the light. The power of dictators to silence and imprison writers continues to ‘put all heaven in a rage.’