Tehran: Shaking hands with people of the opposite sex led to jail term and sentence of 99 lashes apiece to two Iranian poets. The poets, Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Musavi, have been sentenced to jail for “insulting the sacred” in their writings, a decision slammed by freedom of expression activists.

Ekhtesari (left) is a practicing obstetrician, and Mousavi is a trained doctor. Pic/ International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran

The crackdown against poets is the latest in a pattern of worsening repression in Iran. The sentences follow a pattern of arrests and convictions targeting activists, journalists and artists that have served as a grim backdrop to President Hassan Rouhani’s efforts to soften the country’s image and improve relations with the West, attempts that include doing this through the landmark nuclear agreement reached last summer.

Ekhtesari is a practicing obstetrician, and Mousavi is a trained doctor, who teaches literature and poetry. They were first arrested in December 2013, a few months after Rouhani took office.

Travesty of justice
“The poets’ arrests and convictions are a travesty of justice, and send a chill over the already beleaguered creative community in Iran,” Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression Programs at PEN American Centre, said. Earlier this month, Ekhtesari and Musavi, who touched on social issues in their work, received prison sentences of 11 and a half and 9 years respectively for convictions based on confessions extracted under duress. Both poets legally published books that received approval from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, the group said.

Tyranny or adultery?
The flogging sentences came after Ekhtesari admitted to shaking hands with male participants at a poetry event in Sweden, PEN said. Shaking hands with a member of the opposite sex who isn’t an immediate relation is considered an “illegitimate sexual relationship short of adultery" in Iran, it said. “Iran has ranked among the world’s worst jailers of the press every year since 2009,” the group said. In the committee’s most recent census, Iran was found to be holding at least 30 journalists in jail, the second highest number worldwide behind China.

The number of journalists reported to be in Iranian jail, the second highest number worldwide behind China