Iran arrests 3rd outspoken filmmaker in escalating crackdown

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran has arrested an internationally renowned filmmaker, several newspapers reported Tuesday, the third Iranian director to be locked up in less than a week as the government escalates a crackdown on the country’s celebrated cinema industry.

The arrest of award-winning director Jafar Panahi and wider pressure on filmmakers follows a wave of recent arrests as tensions escalate between Iran’s hard-line government and the West. Security forces have detained several foreigners and a prominent reformist politician as talks to revive Tehran’s nuclear accord with world powers hit a deadlock and fears grow over the country’s economic crisis.

Panahi, one of Iran’s best-known dissident filmmakers, had gone to the prosecutor’s office in Tehran on Monday evening to check on the cases of his two colleagues detained last week, when security forces scooped him up as well, the reports said.

A colleague of Panahi, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear of reprisals, told The Associated Press that authorities sent him to Iran’s notorious Evin Prison to serve out a prison term dating back years ago.

In 2011, Panahi received a six-year prison sentence on charges of creating anti-government propaganda and was banned from filmmaking for 20 years. He was also barred from leaving the country.

However, the sentence was never really enforced and Panahi continued to make underground films — without government script approval or permits — which were released abroad to great acclaim.

Panahi has won multiple festival awards, including the 2015 Berlin Golden Bear for “Taxi,” a wide-ranging meditation on poverty, sexism and censorship in Iran, and the Venice Golden Lion in 2000 for “The Circle,” a deep dive into women’s lives in Iran’s patriarchal society.

The Berlin International Film Festival said it was “dismayed and outraged” to hear of Panahi’s arrest, calling it “another violation of freedom of expression and freedom of the arts.”

His detention came after the arrest of two other Iranian filmmakers, Mohamad Rasoulof and Mostafa al-Ahmad.

Authorities accused Rasoulof and al-Ahmad of undermining the nation’s security by voicing opposition on social media to the government’s violent crackdown on unrest in the country’s southwest.

Following the catastrophic collapse of the Metropol Building that killed at least 41 people in May, protests erupted over allegations of government negligence and deeply rooted corruption. Police responded with a heavy hand, clubbing protesters and firing tear gas, according to footage widely circulating online.

Rasoulof won the Berlin Film Festival’s top prize in 2020 for his film “There Is No Evil” that explores four stories loosely connected to the themes of the death penalty in Iran and personal freedoms under tyranny. In 2011, Rasoulof’s film “Goodbye” won a prize at Cannes but he was not allowed to travel to France to accept it.

Cannes sharply condemned the arrests of the three filmmakers and “the wave of repression obviously in progress in Iran against its artists.”

PEN America, a literary and free speech organization, said their detention marks a “brazen violation of their human right to free expression and speech.”

Several foreigners have also landed in Iranian prison in recent weeks, including two French citizens, a Swedish tourist, a Polish scientist and others, spurring concerns that Iran is trying to leverage them as bargaining chips in negotiations.

It’s a tactic Iran has used in the past, including in 2014 when authorities arrested Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian. He was released a year and a half later in a prisoner swap with the United States as the landmark nuclear accord took effect.

On Monday, the family of a Belgian humanitarian worker being held in Iran, Olivier Vandecasteele, appealed to Brussels to do “everything” to secure his release from Evin Prison. They said he was arrested in late February after working for more than six years in Iran to help its Afghan migrant community.

The Belgian Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the AP on Tuesday it had asked Iran for his release on “several occasions” and still had “no information on the reasons of his arrest.” It said the government was providing him with consular assistance.

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Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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