PEN America has bestowed its 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award to three imprisoned Iranian writers in a ceremony in New York on Tuesday.

The award that was announced in September was officially presented in a gala with the attendance of 800 guests representing New York’s cultural elite.

The three writers received more than a 15 years of prison sentences together in May 2019 for “crimes against national security”, a typical charge the Islamic Republic routinely makes against activists, writers and journalists to stifle criticism.

Reza Khandan Mahabadi, Baktash Abtin and Kayvan Bajan, were convicted of "propaganda against the state" and "acting against national security”, each receiving a more than five-year sentence. The three are members of the Iranian Writers Association, which has been banned and its members persecuted by threats and jail sentences.

At the time the Writers Association issued a statement saying, "This trial is not just the condemnation of three writers. This was not a trial against the Writers Association alone. It’s a condemnation of all writers and others who want to enjoy the right to free expression.”

PEN America, a non-profit defending freedom of expression and human rights, held its 2020 annual event virtually due to Covid-19, but this year resumed its traditional gala, where the award for the Iranian writers was the most prominent event.

"They are writers who are called not only to offer prose and ideas on a page, but to live fearlessly—and sacrifice immensely in service of the liberties that underpin free thought, art, culture, and creativity," PEN CEO Suzanne Nossel said in a press release before the event.

PEN America followed the case of the three writers from the very beginning of their arrest and trial. In May 2019, the organization expressed its concern.

"PEN International is alarmed about the large number of writers and activists in Iran who have been detained or imprisoned solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression," the group said.

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