On November 15th, every year now for the last 40 years, PEN International has observed the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. With the harassment, detention, conviction and imprisonment of writers, journalists, academics and activists on the rise around the world, the folks at PEN have their work cut out for them.
Promoting literature and freedom of expression, PEN celebrated its 100th anniversary on October 5th, 2021, and has autonomous PEN centers in more than 100 countries.
Over the years, PEN has championed the release of such writers as Orhan Pamuk and Hrant Dink in Turkey, Maziar Bahari and Sedigeh Vasmaghi in Iran, and Natalia Sharina and Oleg Sentsov in Russia. Lest you think that PEN hasn’t had any reason to evince concern over writers in the United States, consider their 2019 “judicial concern” for imprisoned journalist and author Mumia Abu-Jamal.
Turkey in the last few years has become one of the largest oppressors of writers, academics and intellectuals, with the single largest prison population of political detainees in continental Europe. President Erdogan, consolidating his power, has fired 5,600 academics and 51,000 school teachers whose progressive politics or Kurdish heritage he disliked, or who as journalists/editors/publishers, have been too outspoken, such as widely-translated journalist-novelist Ahmed Altan, who has said, “My words cannot be imprisoned.”
PEN is calling for the immediate release of writer Selahattin Demirtaş, a Zaza-Kurdish politician and former co-leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) in Turkey. Demirtaş began his political career as a human rights lawyer, and helped transform the HDP into a more inclusive party with an emphasis on progressive values, feminism, and LGBTQ rights. He passionately believes in the liberal, democratic future of Turkey. Imprisoned since November 2016, Demirtaş ran for president in 2014, and again in 2018 – where he conducted his campaign from his prison cell. His first collection of short stories, Dawn, was written from a maximum-security prison in Edirne, where he is still being held. According to PEN, Demirtaş has been imprisoned “on charges of being a leading member of a terrorist organisation, spreading terrorist propaganda, praising crimes and criminals and inciting public hatred and hostility. The evidence used against him consists largely of his political speeches and press statements and lacks any compelling evidence of criminal activity.”
PEN is demanding that the Turkish authorities immediately turn Selahattin Demirtaş loose and quash his conviction, in accordance with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights and end all ongoing criminal proceedings against him.
For years, PEN has championed the plight of Uyghur imprisoned writers, and is now calling for the immediate release of Rahile Dawut. A prominent anthropologist and leading expert on the study of Uyghur folklore and cultural traditions, Dawut is an associate professor at Xinjiang University and founder of the university’s Minorities Folklore Research Center; she is internationally recognized for her unique contribution to the study and cataloguing of Uyghur cultural heritage.
According to PEN, Dawut disappeared in late 2017, shortly after making plans to travel from Xinjiang to Beijing to participate in an academic conference. In July 2021, investigative reporting by Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service confirmed her imprisonment according to sources within Xinjiang University.
In a communiqué, PEN concludes that, “Dawut’s imprisonment is emblematic of the Chinese government’s efforts to dislocate the Uyghur population from their cultural identity and heritage through overwhelming levels of censorship and repression. Since the establishment of Xinjiang’s expansive network of re-education camps in 2017, over a million Uyghurs and other minorities have been detained, including hundreds of writers, poets, translators, scholars and public intellectuals, who together represent the living embodiment of Uyghur culture.”
In the western hemisphere, PEN is championing the freedom of Maykel Osorbo, aka Maykel Castillo Pérez, a musician, rapper and author of independent music in Cuba. Osorbo is co-author with other Cuban musicians of “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”), a song that since its release in February 2021 has served as a rallying cry of hope and an anthem during anti-government demonstrations across the island. With nearly 9 million views on YouTube, the song was nominated for the Best Urban Song and Song of the Year at the Latin Grammy Awards. Osorbo is also one of the founders of the Movimiento San Isidro (MSI), a group of Cuban artists and intellectuals founded in 2018 to protest state censorship of artistic, literary or journalistic works and defend freedom of expression in Cuba.
Cuban authorities detained Osorbo on May 18, 2021 while at home, subjecting him to enforced disappearance for 14 days. News outlets later reported that he had been held in custody and transferred to 5 y Medio prison, in Pinar del Río, on May 31, accused of alleged crimes such as “resistance” and “contempt.” PEN notes, “His provisional detention does not comply with international legal requirements or the Cuban criminal code.”
For this year’s Day of the Imprisoned Writer, PEN is also calling for the immediate release of 12 writers imprisoned in Eritrea since 2001, and the release of Mohammed Al-Roken in the United Arab Emirates.