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Iran: Radio Farda -- Writer On Trial Over Fictional Events

By Mehrdad Sepehri and Azadeh Sharafshahi (RFE/RL) August 28, 2007 (Radio Farda) -- The trial has begun in southwestern Iran of what is believed to be the first novelist to face prosecution for allegedly insulting an ethnic group in a work of fiction.

Award-winning author Yaghub Yadali went on trial in the city of Yasuj on August 23 on charges of spreading false information in his novels.

The charges relate to two books by Yadali that were published years ago and that portray a woman in an extramarital relationship. Because his female character speaks in the Lori (aka Luri) dialect of his native province, Yadali's critics have accused him of trying to insult all Lori women. Yadali has rejected such accusations and said he is himself is an ethnic Lor and that he would never offend this ethnic group.

His lawyer has suggested that personal, regional, or local grievances might have motivated the charges.

Dissuading Critics?

Yadali was jailed for some 40 days before his release in late April.

Some observers have accused Iran's government of using ethnic sensitivities as a pretext for censuring publications with which it disagrees.

"You can't take life out of literature."

Observers say that while journalists, writers, caricaturists, and filmmakers have faced similar charges in the past -- and lost their jobs or ended up in prison as a result -- Yadali's marks the first case of a novelist being targeted by such allegations.

One of Iran's most prominent poets, Simin Behbani, argues that under no circumstances should such charges be leveled at a storyteller. Behbani tells Radio Farda that there is no reason to apply the portrayal of an individual of a certain ethnicity to her entire ethnic group. Behbani says such a move is based on a false notion that will limit and isolate literature and prevent novelists from getting their work done. "You can't take life out of literature," Behbani says, adding that and you can't order a novelist to write this way or that way. "If we want to consider everyone else's suggestions in our work, we have to censure half of our country's literature," Behbani says. She adds that the context in which an author raises an issue must always be considered.

Always Watching

Mansour Koushan, an Iranian playwright, novelist, and journalist who lives in Norway, says a writer should never be persecuted for the contents of his work. He argues that as long as Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance oversees the approval and licensing of books, writers are absolved of any responsibility relating to the contents of their work.

But Koushan says authorities are not abiding by their own rules or fundamental principles. He argues that they are merely looking for pretexts to attack anyone expressing views that are not in line with the official ones. Koushan fears that a writer might become a victim of such government "pretense" at any time.

Some observers argue that Iran's multiethnic composition and the sensitive nature of the issue in Iranian society cannot be disregarded.

Alarm Bells

Akbar Masumbegi, a Tehran-based novelist and member of the Iranian Writers Union, says Iran is a multiethnic state with many languages and dialects.

He says that last year's unrest in the predominantly ethnic Azeri region in northwestern Iran -- over a cartoon deemed insulting -- has been exploited by the government and given it an excuse to suppress anyone who expresses an opinion with which the government does not agree.

But what appears to worry analysts most is increasing self-censorship by writers as a response to the government actions.

In recent weeks, a number of writers in Iran have expressed concern over Yadali's detention and trial. Supporters have urged the judiciary to dismiss the case against him, adding in a public statement that "the incident" has alarmed Iran's intellectual circles at a time of increasing pressure on some of those same intellectuals.

Radio Farda's Parnaz Azima

Radio Farda's Parnaz Azima