Day of the Imprisoned Writer: What Next?

by Chris Bovis

In 1981 PEN International began its Day of the Imprisoned Writer campaign, which sought to raise the profile of five imprisoned writers/poets/essayists/journalists around the world each year. This week readers have seen articles about four of this years selected writers, with details concerning their ‘crimes’, court cases, and the wider situation in their countries. The articles have demonstrated, in no uncertain terms, why the Day of the Imprisoned Writer is such an important and necessary event worldwide. Whilst many of us are lucky enough to be born, raised, or educated in countries where the freedom of expression is taken as a given, there are many in the world who aren’t; where the use of their own voice, their own opinion, will see harsh treatment, lengthy prison sentences, and in some cases even death.

As readers will know the individuals who were the focus of this year’s campaign were: Mahvash Sabet (Iran), Azimjon Askarov (Kyrgyzstan), Gao Yu (China), Enoh Meyomesse (Cameroon), and Nelson Aguilera (Paraguay). Their lives and stories are varied and unique, yet their harsh treatment and captivity are frightening similar. Freedom of Expression is a fundamental human right, protected by UN charter, yet so many have been persecuted on trumped up and fabricated charges. In an ironic twist of fate it is in these situations where the voices of the activists, writers, and ordinary people the world over prove how powerful an individual voice can be to governments fearful of that voice. Organisations like PEN International have shown that these persecutions will not be tolerated and that a spotlight will be shined upon the perpetrators until justice has been done.

Yet this post seeks to contextualise these individuals into PEN’s history and more specifically, other former recipients of the Day of the Imprisoned Writer campaign, and to ask how ordinary people like us can improve the situation, and make a difference.

Amir-Abbas Fakhravar (Iran) was arrested and imprisoned for criticising the leadership of Iran in his book Inja Chah Nist (This Place is Not a Ditch). He was arrested in November 2002 and sentenced to 8 years in prison. In 2004, Amir-Abbas was selected to be one of writers featured in the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. Alongside other international human rights agencies, PEN raised awareness, and campaigned, against the handling of his court case, as well as the mistreatment he faced whilst in jail. By 2006, he had been released and had been given residency in the US.

Journalist Guy-André Kieffer (France/Canada) was another of PEN’s 2004 imprisoned writers. In April 2004 he was kidnapped from a shopping centre parking lot in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. Despite campaigns from Canada, PEN and other international organisations and journalistic bodies, no information about Kieffer was discovered. In 2012, remains were found in Issia, which are suspected to be those of Kieffer.

Although these two examples are stark contrasts, evidence appears to suggest that for PEN writers (at least), the former is much more common. Paul Kamara (Sierra Leone), Dr Roya Toloui (Iran), Shi Tao (China), and Orhan Pamuk (Turkey), all of whom featured as imprisoned writers in 2005, have now all been released. Both Toloui and Pamuk are resident in the US, whilst Shi Tao remains resident in China after being released from prison last year. Similar results can be seen, for example, in the cases of Maung Thura “Zarganar”, the Burmese actor and comedian who featured as a PEN imprisoned writer in 2007 and was freed in 2011; and Maziar Bahari (a PEN IW in 2009), the Iranian Canadian journalist who was freed from prison in 2009 following an international campaign.

These examples demonstrate how international pressure and individual voices and signatures can change the lives of individuals incarcerated without due cause. Yet, not all of PEN’s imprisoned writers have been so lucky. Natalya Estemirova (Russia), and Hrant Dink (Turkey/Armenia) were two imprisoned writers (2009 and 2006 respectively) who following their release, were both assassinated. Investigations were lax and their killers remain at large. Furthermore, writers such as Liu Xiaobo (China, 2009), Mohammad Seddigh Kaboudvand (Iran, 2008), and Jamshid Karimov (Uzbekistan, 2007) are all still serving prison sentences in dire conditions.

Thus, this is where individuals such as ourselves come in. This post is not intended to cast aspersions or doubt upon the outstanding work of organisations like PEN International, Amnesty International, the UN or other international charity, or human rights groups, yet Jamshid Karimov and the other PEN writers still imprisoned demonstrate where we can improve. I have no doubt that there are individuals around the world, this very moment, campaigning for the release of these writers, as well as many others, but the power of organisations such as PEN comes from the awareness its membership can create. Whilst the Day of the Imprisoned Writers goes far to raise that awareness, I cannot help but think it isn’t far enough.

Public awareness is often short-lived, and every effort must be taken to ensure that individuals such as Liu Xiaobo remain in the public consciousness as long as possible. Yet there aren’t any easy solutions to make this possible. How can individual members or groups do this? I’m afraid I don’t have the answer. All we can do is continue to fight for those writers imprisoned around the world, and hope that we can get as many released as possible. Because that’s the overriding trend in all of this, for those released and those still imprisoned. That the longer people are aware, the more that people are shouting and campaigning for their release, the more movement there is in the writer’s cases. The voice of the individual is what helps change these people’s lives. Whether you are a teacher in Canada, a poet in Australia, or a student in the UK, our individuals voices, united in one purpose, is what achieves results. So, what can the individual do to help an imprisoned writer?

Shout and Remember.

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