According to PEN America, an organization promoting literature and free speech, Ekhtesari, a practicing obstetrician, and Mousavi, who teaches literature and poetry but trained as a doctor, were arrested in December 2013 and sentenced earlier this month. Ekhtesari got 11-and-a-half years, while Mousavi got nine.
“I think people thought with the nuclear deal, there would be sort of a bit of a thaw as well or a bit of an opening up,” PEN America’s director of Free Expression Programs, Karin Deutsch Karlekar, said. “I think the judiciary is sort of pushing back and trying to make clear that there isn’t going to be that opening people were hoping for.”
The sentences follow a pattern of arrests and convictions targeting activists, journalists and artists that has served as a grim backdrop to President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to soften the country’s image and improve relations with the West, including through the landmark nuclear agreement reached last summer.
Hard-liners in the police, judiciary and military view any rapprochement with the West as a threat to the Islamic Republic and a sign of moral decay. Rights groups and analysts say those targeted in the ongoing crackdown on expression in Iran also serve as pawns in the hard-liners’ struggle with moderates ahead of February’s parliamentary elections.
According the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 30 journalists were held in Iranian prisons at the end of last year, including the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen recently convicted on espionage charges.
Award-winning filmmaker Keywan Karimi was sentenced to six years in prison and 223 lashes for his films, which authorities said were “insulting sanctities”—the same charge Mousavi faced.