Day of the Imprisoned Writer — November 15, 2021

8 November, 2021
Impris­oned writ­ers Sela­hat­tin Demir­taş of Turkey and Maykel Osor­bo of Cuba.


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.”

Sela­hat­tin Demir­taş (pho­to: Twitter).

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.

Impris­oned Uygher writer Rahile Dawut (pho­to cour­tesy Lisa Ross).

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.

Learn more and take action here.