France demands release of Iranian filmmaker invited to Cannes

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France on Wednesday called on Iran to immediately release jailed filmmaker Jafar Panahi and allow him to take his seat as a member of the jury at the Cannes film festival.

"He is one of the most eminent representatives of Iranian film and his place is at the festival where he has been invited as a member of the jury," said Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand in a joint statement.

Panahi, 49, has been held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison since March 1, when he was arrested by Iranian authorities, reportedly because he was making a film about the disputed 2009 presidential election.

"We call for his immediate release and urge the Tehran authorities to respect the fundamental right of Iranians to freedom of expression and creativity," the ministers added.

The appeal came on the opening day of the Cannes film festival, with the jury led by US director Tim Burton set to award the coveted Palme d'Or prize on May 23rd at the gala in the southern Riviera resort.

Panahi is known for his gritty, socially critical movies such as "The Circle," which clinched the 2000 Venice Golden Lion award, "Crimson Gold" and "Offside," winner of the 2006 Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival.

In February he was banned from attending the Berlin film festival.

Iran's culture minister said last month Panahi had been arrested for making an anti-regime film.

His plight has drawn appeals from the US film world and beyond.

Hollywood heavyweights Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Robert Redford, Francis Ford Coppola, Joel and Ethan Coen, Ang Lee, Michael Moore and Oliver Stone signed a petition earlier this month demanding his release.

On Tuesday, Amnesty International called on Tehran to allow Panahi to go to Cannes, saying "an empty chair at the Cannes Film Festival... will highlight the folly and injustice of Iran's crackdown on those who have peacefully criticised the government."

In a signed letter released by the Iranian ILNA news agency in March, 50 Iranian filmmakers and artists called for Panahi to be set free.

© 2010 AFP

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