By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 21, 2010; 10:56 AM
TEHRAN - Prominent Iranian director Jafar Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making films, writing scripts, giving interviews and traveling abroad for the coming 20 years, his lawyer said Tuesday.
The sentence, handed down Monday, was viewed by other Iranian artists as an example for those connected to the country's grass-roots opposition movement. There was no official reaction from either the judiciary or government representatives.
Panahi, 50, an internationally acclaimed filmmaker, was officially convicted of conspiring against national security and spreading propaganda against the system, said his lawyer, Farideh Gheirat.
"The sentence is so harsh because the judge said that Panahi had been persistent in his actions," the lawyer said. "It is unacceptable."
Painters, singers and other artists have publicly sided at times with opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his supporters. Another filmmaker, Mohammad Nourizadeh, is currently on a hunger strike in Tehran's Evin prison. Mohammad Shajarian, a renowned traditional singer, is not allowed to hold concerts. The government tends to view those who participate in opposition activities as "seditionists" who can be tried as criminals.
After Ahmadinejad's disputed victory in Iran's 2009 presidential election, Panahi several times joined protesters and was once detained briefly by security forces. In March, while attempting to make a film inside his own house, he was again arrested and held for two months. Iran's culture minister said Panahi was making a film against the government, but the director's wife denied it.
International film stars and directors such as Steven Spielberg, Robert Redford and Francis Ford Coppola joined Iranian filmmakers in pleading for Panahi's release. Panahi can appeal the sentence and remains free until his next hearing, scheduled for January.
Almost all of Panahi's films are banned by Iran's Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. But although they cannot be screened in cinemas, they are widely available on bootlegged DVDs. His works are rife with social criticism. "The Circle," which won the main award during the 2000 Venice Film Festival, centers around the difficult lives of women in the Islamic Republic. "Offside," about girls who dress up as boys to watch a soccer match where women are not allowed, won an award at the Berlin Film Festival in 2007.
After his release in May on $200,000 bail, Panahi stressed that he is a director, not a political leader.
"But when my government does wrong, I am compelled to act," he said. "Our leaders should listen to the demands of those who protested in 2009."
During his defense statement in November, which popped up on several Web sites and Facebook, Panahi told the judge that the state is besieging Iran's internationally renowned movie industry.
"The assassination of ideas and sterilizing artists of a society has only one result: killing the roots of art and creativity," Panahi said during his trial. "It drives this crystal clear but sad message home: 'You will repent if you don't think like us.' "
The long prison sentence and the unusual social restrictions against Panahi have shocked Iranian artists.
"This sentence is a warning to us all," said a popular actress who once openly supported Ahmadinejad's election challengers but now refuses to be identified, fearing retribution. "It is a message that even the smallest criticism could have dire consequences."