Iranian director Jafar Panahi was in the spotlight at the opening of the Berlin film festival on Thursday, with an empty chair at the jury press conference a reminder of the risks sometimes involved in making movies.

Panahi had been invited to sit on the seven-member jury which decides on the prize-winners when the 10-day cinema showcase ends on February 19.

But in December he was sentenced to six years in prison and banned from making films or traveling abroad for 20 years.

Panahi, a critic of the Ahmadinejad regime who supported the protests that followed 2009’s disputed Iranian elections, was convicted of “propaganda against the system”. In his plea to the court, he said: “My imprisonment and that of those I work with symbolises the kidnapping by those in power of all artists in the country.” Panahi will be jailed alongside another film-maker, Mohammad Rasoulof.

Panahi won the Camera d’Or award at the 1995 Cannes film festival for The White Balloon and the Golden Lion prize at the 2000 Venice festival for The Circle. His other pictures include Offside and Crimson Gold.

The director was initially arrested at his home in March, when he was accused of making an “anti-regime” documentary about the green uprising. His incarceration sparked protests from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Ang Lee and Steven Spielberg, while Juliette Binoche used the stage at last May’s Cannes film festival to call for Panahi’s release.

“We are still hoping that he will be able to come,” said jury president of Berlinale International Film Festival, Isabella Rossellini. “We haven’t given up. He is a very big presence even if he is not here.”

Inviting Panahi, whose “Offside” won a Berlin award in 2006, “was an attempt to take a very strong position for freedom of speech and freedom of artists,” she added. “It is important that every voice be heard, every kind of film be made.”

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