2 Iranian poets, facing lashings and prison, escape country

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- Two Iranian poets who face lashings and prison sentences have fled Iran, one of the writers said Monday, a rare escape for local artists and activists ensnared in an ongoing crackdown on expression in the country.

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Fatemeh Ekhtesari and Mehdi Mousavi's freedom came as world powers lifted sanctions on Iran over its contested nuclear program and as the country separately freed four Iranian-Americans in exchange for seven Iranians held in the U.S.

The poets' escape is a reminder that despite the growing detente with the West, hard-liners still exert control over much of life in the Islamic Republic.

Ekhtesari told The Associated Press on Monday that both she and Mousavi escaped from Iran in recent days and made it to another country. She declined to elaborate out of continuing concerns about their safety.

Ekhtesari faced an 11 1/2-year prison sentence, while Mousavi faced nine years on charges ranging from propaganda against the state to "insulting poetsanctities." Each was sentenced to 99 lashings. They likely were targeted because their work is known abroad. Both are self-described "postmodern Ghazal" poets who seek to revive the traditional Persian love sonnet by applying it to contemporary political and social issues.

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.

Award-winning Iranian filmmaker Keywan Karimi faces six years in prison and up to 223 lashes over his films, which authorities also charged with "insulting sanctities." In June, a court handed cartoonist Atena Farghadani a 12-year, nine-month sentence.


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