Iran Pulse

Can books be used for punishment?

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Article Summary
The sentencing of a veteran Iranian dissident to a jail term and to copy three books by hand has brought the phenomenon of “alternative sentences” to the fore.

In an unusual development, a judge in Tehran has sentenced prominent — and aging — political activist Abolfazl Ghadyani to copy three books by hand while serving his prison term.

The 74-year-old Ghadyani, who has been tortured and imprisoned both under the former shah and after the 1979 Revolution for his political activism, had been charged with insulting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and spreading propaganda against the establishment.

Iranian media reported on March 11 that Ghadyani had been given a three-year prison term. Two days earlier, his son announced in a tweet that the veteran activist was additionally sentenced to copy — by hand — three books. They are "The Story of Winter," a memoir of Iran-Iraq war prisoners by Saeed Akef; "The Story of Sistan," a book by Reza Amirkhani about Khamenei's visit to a poor province; and a book on Khamenei's views on "knowing the enemy," which is presumably a collection of the leader's speeches on the issue. Akef and Amirkhani are both novelists and generally categorized by their peers and the public as strongly committed to the values of the Islamic Revolution, namely those close to the establishment's. Amirkhani, a top-selling successful writer and literary editor, has, however, in recent years distanced himself from the hard-line camp in the country. "The Story of Sistan," which is among his early works, is an account of a visit by Khamenei to the southeastern province of Sistan-Baluchistan. Amirkhani, who accompanied the leader during the 10-day visit, registered his observations of the ayatollah's historic trip to the underprivileged province.

The sentencing of an outspoken critic of Khamenei to copy by hand the entire texts of these three books appears to be designed to better familiarize him with the literature that serves the ideals and principles of the Islamic Revolution. But not all state organs are onboard with the punishment.

Indeed, the unusual verdict has even been criticized by the Office for the Preservation and Propagation of the Works of Grand Ayatollah Khamenei, which publicly declared that "using works related to the Supreme Leader as punishment for a convict is tasteless."

The criticism came after Amirkhani similarly denounced Ghadyani’s sentence on his official Telegram channel (Ermia.ir) March 10. "First of all, books should not be read on the order of a judge. A book is read properly only when the reader chooses it of his/her own volition," the novelist wrote, adding, "If in the verdict, the book had been simply recommended for reading, I would not have bothered to criticize. … but copying by hand?!"

A convict's must-read book

Iran has in recent years increasingly seen the phenomenon of judges issuing "alternative sentences" (ahkam-e jaygozin), presumably to help reduce the number of inmates in notoriously crowded prisons.

While the unusual sentence against Ghadyani has stirred loud criticism, there was recently a similar incident in the holy city of Qom, where a judge sentenced a university student to study "On Highs and Lows of Our Time" ("Az Sard va Garm-e Rouzegar") — an autobiography by prominent dissident journalist Ahmad Zeidabadi. The student had been charged with buying and selling long-range two-way radio sets online, for which he received a 30-day jail term. But Judge Mohammad Javad Rahsepar suspended the sentence and ordered the unnamed student of electrical and telecommunications engineering to instead buy and study Zeidabadi's popular autobiography.

Following the nationwide protests in the aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential elections in Iran, Zeidabadi and scores of other Reformist journalists and activists were arrested and spent years behind bars. A winner of numerous awards in journalism, Zeidabadi — who has also been barred from political activism for life — assessed the verdict rather positively in a post on his Telegram channel March 1. "Some friends have urged me to express my views or at least my feelings about the recent verdict by a judge in Qom that has been widely commented on in social media. The fact is that the incident has just very little to do with me and has a lot to do with the judge who has issued the sentence," Zeidabadi wrote. He further added, "It is, however, clear to me that the judge has issued the verdict out of goodwill, and out of his interest in 'On Highs and Lows of Our Time,' possibly to attract the attention of a generation that is hurriedly seeking easy and offbeat shortcuts to achieve its goals … to the fact that life requires incessant efforts, strong motivation and a firm willpower to fight various problems."

In Iran, which has a population of over 82 million, book printings commonly fall within the range of 2,000 to 5,000 copies. Could this apparent new tendency among judges to define a punitive function for literature positively impact the country's struggling publishing industry?

Parto Shariatmadari is an Iranian freelance journalist and literary translator living in the UK.

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