Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Brutal Artist Crackdown

The harsh sentencing of a world-renowned director prompted protests from Martin Scorsese and other artists this week. Omid Memarian on escalating repression in Iran.

12.25.10 7:02 PM ET

When world-renowned filmmaker Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison earlier this week, the verdict reverberated both inside and outside Iran.

Not only did authorities in Tehran hand down an exceptionally harsh sentence, they also decreed that the 50-year-old Panahi will be banned from filmmaking, screenwriting and traveling abroad for the next 20 years. According to his relatives, Panahi has also been banned from talking to the media. 

Along with Panahi, Muhammad Rasoulof, another filmmaker involved with Panahi’s movie, was also sentenced to six years in prison.

Actors and filmmakers the world over have signed a petition, calling for Panahi’s release.

"I was shocked and disheartened by the news of Jafar Panahi and Mohammed Rasoulof's conviction and sentencing," director Martin Scorsese said in a statement this week. "It's depressing to imagine a society with so little faith in its own citizens that it feels compelled to lock up anyone with a contrary opinion. As filmmakers, we all need to stand up for Panahi and Rasoulof. We should applaud their courage and campaign aggressively for their immediate release."

And on Tuesday, the U.N. General Assembly expressed its “deep concern” about “recurring human rights violations in Iran” by approving a resolution that noted the severe limitations on freedom of thought and freedom of religion in Iran. The resolution criticized arbitrary arrests as well as the long prison sentences handed out for prisoners of conscience.

“Mr. Panahi’s sentence is an alarming message to all in the Iranian film industry,” said Narges Kalhor, an Iranian film director, who is also the daughter of Mehdi Kalhor, the cultural adviser to Ahmadinejad. Narges Kalhor fled Iran last year, protesting the lack of freedom of speech.

“They are basically saying that you are either with us, making films for us, or you should sit at home,” she said, adding that directors and writers have been systematically barred from work. “Panahi’s sentence just shows that they have become very comfortable in putting such severe restrictions on paper.”

The crackdown, observers said, is yet another indication of how the government of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is trying to quell dissent and tighten its grip on power. Panahi, and other critical independent filmmakers, are banned from showing their films in Iran.

The twin sentences of the filmmakers comes on the heels of several high-profile verdicts, including that of Jila Baniyaghoub, an Iranian journalist who, a few months ago, was sentenced to one year in prison and a 30-year ban on journalistic activities. Last year, another prominent journalist and political analyst, Ahmad Zeidabadi, was sentenced to six years in prison; five years in exile in Gonabad, and a lifetime ban on social and political activities, including interviews, speeches, commentary and participation and support of political parties.

The journalist and movie critic described the censorship and arrests as “nothing but Islamic McCarthyism.”

"The government is saying that if you don’t think like us, leave the country before you end up in jail—or be banned from your profession for life,” another journalist in Iran told The Daily Beast on condition of anonymity. “Panahi did not leave the country, and now he has to pay the price.”

The journalist and movie critic described the censorship and arrests as “nothing but Islamic McCarthyism.”

“The only people who have complete freedom of expression and can say whatever they want are the Supreme Leader and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.  It is suppression for everyone else," he added.

During post-election protests in Iran, more than 5,000 people were arrested and many lost their lives during the government crackdown. A presidential candidate claimed that some of those imprisoned in detention centers were abused and even raped.  The Iranian government authorities vehemently refute these charges.

Iranian security forces arrested Panahi in March, while he was filming in his home. He was released on bail after three months. A source close to the Panahi family told The Daily Beast that his new film is about a family whose young son is arrested during the street protests following the disputed 2009 presidential election.  “The family members are dealing with different issues, and what happens to the son,” threatens to pull the family apart. “The film is the story of the family's struggle for staying together.” Panahi had just filmed 30 minutes when he and his crew were arrested, the source said.

The prominent Iranian filmmaker, who has received numerous awards, including the Cannes Film Festival's Camera d'Or; the Venice Film Festival's Golden Lion, and the Berlin Film Festival's Silver Bear, has openly identified himself with the protest movement by wearing the movement’s green color in public. Images of Panahi wearing a green scarf around his shoulders while serving on the jury of the Montreal Film Festival earlier this year were widely published, reportedly angering the Iranian authorities.

“When security forces took Panahi to prison, in addition to criticizing him for the film he was making, they criticized him severely for [wearing] the green scarf,” the source close to the family told The Daily Beast. “They then raised many other questions with him, all unrelated to the film.”

According to Iranian laws, filming in an enclosed, private space does not require a permit from the government.

“I never expected such a harsh sentence,” Farideh Gheirat, Panahi’s lawyer, told The Daily Beast in a telephone interview from Tehran. “We hope the appeals court reverses the verdict; it’s not fair at all.”

Omid Memarian is columnist whose writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications. He was a World Peace Fellow at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism in 2007-2009 and the 2005 recipient of the ‘Human Rights Defender Award’, the highest honor bestowed by Human Rights Watch.