Arrest of Filmmaker Jafar Panahi Highlights Iran’s Latest Onslaught on Dissidence

A day before his arrest, Panahi had posted a public statement asking for the release of filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Al-e Ahmad.

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New Delhi: The arrest of internationally renowned film director Jafar Panahi by authorities in Iran highlights a crackdown on dissidents and the enforcement of moral rules in the country – a sign that the conservative Ebrahim Raisi government is doubling down amidst public dissatisfaction over rising prices.

Panahi (62), who has won top prizes at both the Cannes and Berlin film festivals, was taken into custody on Monday, July 11, when he went to the prosecutor’s office to inquire about the arrest of two of his fellow filmmakers, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Al-e Ahmad, as per Iran’s Mehr News Agency.

Panahi’s debut film, The White Balloon, won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 1995. Other awards he has won include the Golden Bear at the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival and the Golden Lion at the 2000 Venice Film Festival. One of the leading lights in Iran’s new wave film movement, Panahi has previously worked with one of Iran’s great film directors, Abbas Kiarostami.

The last two posts from Panahi’s Instagram account demanded the release of Rasoulof and Al-e Ahmad, who were associated with protests related to the collapse of a 10-story building in the southwestern city of Abadan, which killed over 43 people.

Also read: Ebrahim Raisi, Winner of Iran Presidency, Is a Hardline Judge Critical of US

The two filmmakers were among a group of 70 members of the film industry who signed an appeal calling on security forces to “lay down their arms” in the face of the outrage over the governmental incompetence which led to the Abadan house collapse.

As per the state-run IRNA, the two were accused of “inciting unrest and disrupting the psychological security of society” by exploiting the “heartbreaking incident in Abadan’s Metropol”.

A day before his arrest, Panahi had posted a public statement asking for their release on his Instagram account. “We condemn the suppression and the pressure that independent filmmakers and free thinkers are experiencing. We also condemn the systematic violation of the basic individual and social rights by the relevant organisations and institutions. Therefore, we demand the immediate and unconditional release of our colleagues,” the post read.


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In an earlier Instagram post, Panahi had written that when “a government reaches political and economic deadlock”, it has no tolerance left for any civil dissidence. He asked whether it was a crime to ask for people to abstain from violence, a reference to the open letter signed by Rasoulof and Al-e Ahmad that called on security agencies to lay down arms.

The charges slapped on the two filmmakers of being connected to “counter-revolutionary forces” was to ensure that they would be put behind bars on a longer sentence of spying for foreign powers, Panahi wrote on July 9.

Mehr News Agency reported that Panahi had gone to Evin prison on July 11 to speak with prosecutors about Rasoulof’s detention. 

According to Panahi’s wife, Tahereh Saeedi, he was informed by guards that he would be taken into custody as there was an outstanding jail term against his name.

Saeedi claimed that her husband had been effectively kidnapped. “Jafar has some rights as a citizen. There’s due process. To imprison someone, they need to be summoned first. But to imprison someone who is protesting outside the jail raises a lot of questions. This is a kidnapping,” she told BBC Persian.

In 2010, Panahi was sentenced to six years in jail for attempting to create anti-government “propaganda” over the controversial 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

He was also barred from making films for 20 years and travelling outside Iran.

While he was not allowed to leave the country, Panahi had been largely confined to house arrest. He continued to make underground films without government approval. At least three of these films received international acclaim. The Iranian government even complained when Panahi’s film, Taxi won the Golden Lion in 2015.

The Berlin International Film Festival expressed its dismay over the arrest of Panahi.

“The arrest of Jafar Panahi is another violation of freedom of expression and freedom of the arts. We ask the Iranian authorities to release the detained filmmakers immediately,” said Berlinale directors Mariette Rissenbeek and Carlo Chatrian, as per an official statement.

The festival had earlier also expressed concern over the arrests of Rasoulof and  Al-e Ahmad. Rasoulof won the Golden Bear for his film, There Is No Evil, in 2020.

The organisers of the Cannes film festival also appealed for the release of the three Iranian filmmakers. “The Festival de Cannes strongly condemns these arrests as well as the wave of repression obviously in progress in Iran against its artists,” an official release on the festival’s website read.  

West Asia-focussed news portal, Al-Monitor, observed that another outspoken dissident and former deputy minister, Mostafa Tajzadeh, had also been arrested on charges of “conspiracy to act against the country’s security” and “publishing falsehoods to disturb the public mind.” 

Along with recent arrests of dissidents, there has also been a crackdown by Iran’s Guidance Patrol on women who have been deemed to have covered their hair improperly. An Iranian lawmaker, Mohsen Pirhadi, also wrote a public letter criticising the Guidance Patrol officers’ aggressive behaviour.

“The wave of arrests and enforcement of strict hijab laws are seen by many observers as the Raisi administration and the unelected powers in government working to consolidate power further and eliminate room for any type of dissident,” said the Al-Monitor report.