2016 Writer in Prison Committee Chair’s Notebook #2

28 Jun 2016
2016 Writer in Prison Committee Chair’s Notebook #2

Notebook from PEN International:

London, 24 June 2016

It is not often that I get to write a letter with some good news. But a few good things happened in the last few weeks, and therefore it is good to begin this letter on a note of cheer. First, Khadija Ismayilova, for whose release all of you worked so consistently and tirelessly, has been released from jail. Granted, the charges against her are not yet withdrawn, and the Azerbaijani Government is eminently capable of placing obstacles in her path, including introducing fresh charges against her – particularly because upon release she has said she will continue doing what she knows best: pursue the truth and tell those stories. Ismayilova has written relentlessly about corruption in Azerbaijan, and the government spared no effort, including spreading smears about her and jailing her, but she stayed unbowed. Her release is an occasion to celebrate, even though the government will continue to watch her.

Another news calling for celebration is the release of the Burmese poet Maung Saung Kha. He is a member of the thriving, new PEN Centre in Myanmar, and while it is good he was released for writing a verse that he had posted on social media which suggested that he had a tattoo of the former Myanmar President Thein Sein on his penis, it is worth noting that he was sentenced to six months in jail, and released only because he had already served time while facing the trial.

In Vietnam, the poet and scholar Father Nguyen Van Ly was conditionally released in a move that coincided with US President Barak Obama’s visit to Vietnam. While his release is welcome news, the conditions imposed on his release show how stubborn governments will continue to place impediments on free speech.

It was also a matter of joy and relief that Salud Hernández-Mora, who was abducted by an armed group in Colombia in late May, was released unharmed within a week. And rounding up a fortnight with unusually positive news from around the world, Ahmedur Rashid Tutul, the Bangladeshi publisher living in exile after he was brutally attacked in Dhaka by machete-wielding assailants last year, received the prestigious Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award for his publishing house, Shuddhashar. I had the privilege of sharing stage with Tutul, as he is known, at the ICORN Congress in Paris in April this year, where he provided a vivid account of the kind of attacks publishers, rationalists, atheists, free thinkers, and bloggers have faced since 2013. Nine writers and publishers have been murdered, and only recently some arrests have been made in some of the cases. Once again, my sincere thanks to all PEN Centres who have kept the Bangladesh issue alive and at the forefront of your campaigns over the years. We have written submissions, published articles, raised our concerns with foreign ministries and delegations, and called upon the Bangladesh Government to take its obligation to protect the right of free expression seriously. It is a long struggle, one to which I feel personally committed, and it is a fight we must not give up.

The widespread use of defamation laws around the world to silence criticism continues to be a major problem. Andy Hall, the British activist with whom I shared stage at the UN Forum for Business and Human Rights last December in Geneva now faces trial in Thailand over charges of criminal defamation and computer crimes for a report he wrote for Finnwatch in 2013. Andy is determined to fight the charges, and we have called upon the Thai Government to drop all charges.

Another country where defamation laws are being misused is Germany, where the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has formally requested the German Government to prosecute Jan Böhmermann, a comic who broadcast a poem that many found distasteful, in which he ridiculed Erdoğan. The Turkish President was able to make the request because of a law on German statute which criminalising insulting foreign leaders. The law is going to be removed, but as the Böhmermann case shows, threats remain in the interim.


Since the Congress in Quebec, I have had the opportunity to raise PEN’s concerns at various fora, and I thank PEN’s membership for granting me that privilege. At the Lekhana Literary Weekend in Bangalore in January, I was on a panel with Aakar Patel, noted Indian writer and director of Amnesty International in India, where we spoke of the growing climate of intolerance in India. Many writers in Bangalore, attending that session, expressed the desire to see more PEN activities in southern India, home to some of India’s richest literature, in Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, Konkani, Urdu, and other languages. Later that month at the Jaipur Literature Festival (which is the world’s largest free festival of literature), I participated in a session in honour of Ashraf Fayadh, the Palestinian poet in jail in Saudi Arabia, and two leading I joined two leading Indian poets as we read from his work – and other poems by writers under siege or writing about freedom. I read Seamus Heaney’s famous poem, From the Republic of Conscience. Later that evening, I took part in the festival’s final debate, on whether freedom of speech is absolute. I said it is; the opposing side carried the day, which shows how we simply cannot take for granted that everyone supports untrammelled free speech. PEN colleagues Emma Wadsworth-Jones from the Secretariat and Brendan de Caires from PEN Canada were at the Festival, along with Evan Rankin from the International Human Rights Programme at the University of Toronto, where they interviewed writers, and later met lawyers and writers in New Delhi to continue research on the free speech environment in India, building on the excellent report PEN Canada published last year about freedom of expression in India.

In late January, I was invited to join a meeting of several hundred writers in Punjabi, Bengali, Konkani, Marathi, Gujarati, Hindi, Urdu, and other languages, as writers from many parts of India gathered in Dandi, on India’s west coast, to express solidarity with three writers and activists who have recently been murdered. (PEN International issued a statement of solidarity with Indian writers who returned state awards, protesting the deaths of Govind Pansare, M M Kalburgi, and Narendra Dabholkar). In my short intervention at the place where Gandhi ended his famous salt march in 1930 to oppose British imperialism, I expressed PEN’s support for the community of Indian writers gathered there.

In April, I spoke about threats bloggers, writers, and publishers face in Bangladesh, at the ICORN Congress in Paris. Tutul, as I mentioned earlier, gave a sobering, moving account of the very real threats writers and bloggers live under. Several other Bangladeshi writers and cartoonists were at our session, and they joined in the rich discussion that followed. Cathy McCann spoke there of our work with ICORN and Lianna Merner spoke about the situation in Burundi. In May, while at Columbia University in New York to launch my book on the Bangladesh war, I began the event by reading out the names of the bloggers and writers who have been murdered there since 2013.

Those grim realities – including the denial of access to journalists refugee camps in Greece, the 16-year sentence given to Narges Mohamedi in Iran, and Norway’s attempt to dismiss PEN’s challenge (along with Edward Snowden) to prevent his potential extradition to the United States should he visit Norway – show that despite all the good news we have had recently, there remain many challenges to free speech, including in Turkey which has remained a focus country for us in recent months. The arrest of Cumhuriyet editor and PEN Turkey member Can Dundar in November for ‘espionage’ in relation to articles and video footage posted on the paper’s website showing Turkish intelligence involvement in arms supplies to Syria is emblematic of the ongoing deterioration of freedom of expression in the country. As the conflict with the PKK hots up again in the south east, civilians are bearing the brunt and those who attempt to report on the situation face arrest. The number of writers in prison in Turkey, which had fallen dramatically in recent years, is rising again PEN has been at the forefront of efforts to support local writers and civil society in their efforts to defend free expression. We have issued high profile statements signed by writers of international reknown, convened a strategy meeting of London-based NGOs to discuss ways to collaborate, and with the help of PEN Norway, Ann Harrison and Romana Cacchioli attended the 10th Gathering for Freedom of Expression in Istanbul in April. This biennial gathering grew out of a PEN International initiative some 20 years ago and brings local and international free expression advocates together to consider the situation both in Turkey and elsewhere. Out of this collaboration, we drafted a submission to the current session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, jointly signed by Reporters Without Borders and the International Press Institute, including several PEN Centres, and Sarah Clarke, our International Policy and Advocacy Manager was able to participate in a joint delegation to meet the Turkish Minister of Justice in May. Our colleagues in the Writers for Peace Committee have been working hard to address the conflict, participating in a meeting of Kurdish PEN and PEN Turkey in Diyarbakir in March, and hosting a debate on the issue by the two centres at the Writers for Peace Committee meeting in Bled in May.

Looking forward

I will be attending the UN Human Rights Council in the week of 20 June with Sarah Clarke to conduct advocacy on our concerns on Bangladesh, Eritrea, and Turkey

20th June was also World Refugee Day – look out for our ongoing Syria’s voices series of interviews with exiled Syrian writers. We put out a statement reiterating our concerns and recommendations around the refugee crisis. Beyond that, 30 August is the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. This is a good opportunity to raise cases of enforced disappearances – please refer to the most recent Case List for examples. We also have campaigning material available for China, Syria (Osama al-Habali, Bassel Khartabil, Khalil Ma’touq), Sri Lanka, and there are cases in Ivory Coast and Gambia. Please get in touch with the relevant Coordinator if you would like to take action.

A reminder: regional responsibilities are currently allocated as follows:

Lianna Merner: Africa (including North Africa)

Tamsin Mitchell: Americas

Emma Wadsworth-Jones
: Asia and Middle East (not North Africa)

Europe: currently under recruitment – please contact Ann Harrison in the meantime for any enquiries relating to Europe.

For any queries relating to persecuted writers needing protection please contact Cathy McCann and Patricia Diaz. They will also be joined next week by Basim Mardan, who is himself a former ICORN guest writer, and who will bring much needed Arabic Language support to the team.

WiPC Meeting 2017

Some of you have been asking about next year’s WiPC meeting – I’m pleased to announce that it will be held in Lillehammer, Norway alongside the Norwegian Festival of Literature. Once again, we will be partnering with ICORN and we are delighted that PEN Norway will be our official hosts on the PEN side. The joint meeting will be held between Wednesday 31st May – Friday 2nd June 2017 – we may extend this on one side or the other to enable us to have our own WiPC sessions. If any of you have suggestions for topics to discuss, please do let me know. Any questions regarding the organization of the meeting should be directed to Jena Patel.

Congress 2016

The 82nd Congress will take place in Ourense, Galicia 26th September – 30 September. Registration will be open very soon. As usual the Committees will meet on the first day of Congress (26th Sep). Please turn your minds to drafting resolutions on issues of concern to your Centre which must be sent to the Secretariat by midnight 18 July 2016. To address concerns of limited time, we have made some amendments to the way in which resolutions are handled. For more information please refer to the latest Congress mailing sent to all Centres by Jena Patel (Congress, Committees and Centres Coordinator.

Many of you will have read that PEN International is carrying out a gender study which we look forward to discussing with all Congress delegates. To allow each Committee to discuss gender as it relates to their work we have also built in a further Committee sessions of 1.5hr on day 3 of the Congress (28th Sep).


Salil Tripathi

Chair of the Writers in Prison Committee

PEN International

(Image courtesy of Hindustan Times)