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PEN International Writers in Prison Committee Chair’s Notebook # 10

Dear PEN Colleagues,

Since the Congress in September, 2012, the Writers in Prison Committee has been extremely busy. The last few months have also seen a high number of urgent alerts on behalf of writers at risk in Brazil, Mexico, Qatar, Vietnam, Bahrain, China…

Here are some of the highlights of activities, by myself as Chair, the staff in London, and centres around the world.

Cielo de México
de par en par la entrada
al cementerio—from Elegías, Irene Selser

One of our most exciting and rewarding projects has been the Write Against Impunity Campaign. Work on this began last spring; WiPC staff, first Cathal Sheerin and then Tamsin Mitchell, worked with many centres, especially those in the Americas, to engage a group of writers to take up the subject of impunity, one of the most troubling challenges to freedom of expression in the region, where the murders and disappearances of writers, journalists, bloggers, editors are rarely investigated, let alone solved. This campaign is a response to the PEN International mission to Mexico, last January, and also builds on last year’s very successful Day of the Dead campaign.

When the pieces were ready, the collection was transformed into a wonderful e-publication and launched on our website, the first of its kind for PEN and we hope it will be a model for the future. I highly recommend that you read the pieces, in Spanish and English submitted by more than 50 writers: http://www.pen-international.org/newsitems/pen-international-launches-anthology-write-against-impunity-for-international-day-to-end-impunity/ We are grateful for the support of IFEX in making this possible.

We hope that the next piece in this campaign will be the creation of an EBook.


I am serving my sentence in a tangible prison, while you wait in the intangible prison of the heart.—Liu Xiaobo, to his wife, Liu Xia

Another international campaign, which engages PEN members with our freedom of expression work, is the joint campaign with Frontline Defenders, to create a collection of readings from the poetry of Liu Xiaobo to commemorate his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize. In order to put pressure on the new leadership in China, we’re gathering video recordings of writers and poets around the world reading excerpts of Liu Xiaobo’s poetry, to be uploaded onto a website and used as the basis for actions and events leading up to 10 December (International Human Rights Day). Here are instructions for uploading readings: http://www.lighthonestyhrd.org/


The WiPC was intensely involved in the recent PEN International delegation to Turkey. In October, Sara Whyatt went to Geneva to make a presentation to the United Nations Committee on Human Rights on our concerns about the use of anti-terror and other laws to imprison around 70 writers and journalists, and to try another 70 more.] Between November 10th and 19th, Sara Whyatt and I, along with our outstanding support team Alev Yaman, Erda Halisdemir and Izzy Finkel, were in Istanbul and Ankara with the delegation: here are several news releases and our position paper on Turkey:


We presented a list of our key cases to the President of Turkey and other officials, met with human rights activists and politicians, hosted two panel discussions at the Istanbul Book Fair. We also hosted, with Turkish PEN, a wonderful afternoon of readings on November 15th, Day of the Imprisoned Writer. All of us on the delegation and many Turkish colleagues read poems, letters from imprisoned friends and family, fragments of memoir, in Cevayir, a lovely garden café, where a cat, or two, sometimes jumped into laps or refused to vacate a chair. We drank wine or coffee; there were murmuring conversations as an accompaniment to the readings. As the light faded, red-shaded lamps were lit; it became increasingly cool, but no one wanted to leave.


In October, I was invited by ICORN to a two-day meeting in New York called “Just a Tiny Piece of Freedom” to discuss with other organizations ideas about safe havens for persecuted writers in the Americas. We also saw the US premiere of Silence or Exile, Marion Staelen’s extraordinary film about writers in exile, co-sponsored by ICORN and Shahrazad.

“More than two-thirds of the people on the current WiPC case list have been targeted because of things they have said in blogs, tweets, and on websites,” said Botsford Fraser. “PEN’s new Declaration on Digital Freedom will be invaluable in our defence of writers at risk.”—Day of the Imprisoned Writer news release, November 15, 2012

You will recall that at the Congress in Gyeongiu, the draft Declaration on Digital Freedom was presented to the Assembly, and unanimously approved, with suggestions for a few minor editorial changes. These changes were considered by the Digital Freedom Committee, and on November 14th, the PEN Declaration on Digital Freedom finally appeared on the PEN website, just in time for Day of the Imprisoned Writer commemorations. Here is the declaration in English; it’s also available soon in French and Spanish and Turkish (it was featured in a panel discussion at the Istanbul Book Fair):



Ahari/Iran, Acosta/Philippines, Martinez/Mexico, Erbey/Turkey, Nega/Ethiopia:

The Day of the Imprisoned Writer was commemorated by PEN centres around the world on November 15th. We chose the five writers listed above as emblematic cases for this year. The diversity and richness and thoughtfulness of events is quite extraordinary. Here is a report on what more than twenty centres did that day, and I know that there are still reports coming in from other centres:


UPCOMING: The next Conference of the Writers in Prison Committee will take place in Krakow, between May 14 and 16, 2013. We only meet every two years, so please plan to attend. Full details will follow before end of December. As with our conference in Brussels, in 2011, this is a joint exercise, with ICORN, and a literary festival, in this case the Czezlaw Milosz Literary Festival. (This approach enables us to pare costs considerably, and we also have shared interests.) We will have a few shared events, but for the most part, WiPC will hold separate meetings. Sara and I are working on the agenda now; if you have ideas; don’t hesitate to contact us. We will be inviting several writers at risk to bring us frontline reports again, and there will be a session on Digital Freedom, and also on the Un Human Rights Council’s Universal Periodic review, which has become an important part of our work.

Best wishes to you all for happy seasonal celebrations with friends, colleagues and family,

Marian Botsford Fraser