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‘I vividly recall the wave of solidarity at the turn of the 1980s in protest against my imprisonment. There were protests from friends, playwright colleagues, writers, Amnesty International, and the Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN…whenever some news did manage to find its convoluted way to me about performances, concerts or petitions in favour of Charter 77…it was always a source of great encouragement and elation in the oppressive conditions of Communist prison. Later…it was my turn to show solidarity with imprisoned colleagues’ Vaclav Havel, Letter to WiPC, September 2009.

One bitterly cold day in the first week of January, the writer, playwright and former president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, and two fellow dissidents walked down a snow-edged street in Prague to deliver a letter to the Chinese Ambassador. Surrounded by a crowd of journalists and photographers, they rang the bell several times. No one came to the door, so they left their letter in the letterbox.

The letter from Havel and his friends, all co-signatories of Charter 77, requested a fair and open trial for the Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo, sentenced on 25 December 2009 to 11 years for being the co-author of Charter 08: ‘…We are convinced that this trial and harsh sentence meted out to a …prominent citizen of your country merely for thinking and speaking critically about various political and social issues was chiefly meant as a stern warning to others not to follow his path.’

Havel (1979) and Liu (2009) are both emblematic cases in WiPC’s year-long campaign celebrating 50 years in International PEN of defending freedom of expression. For each year between 1960 and 2009, one writer has been chosen whose case demonstrates the work of the Writers in Prison Committee. Albanian poet Musine Kokalari was serving a 20-year sentence for being an ‘enemy of the people’ when the WiPC was formed in 1960. Vietnamese poet Nguyen Chi Thien (1971) spent almost 27 years in prison for his ‘politically irreverent poems'; Egyptian novelist and physician Nawal El Saadawi (1981) wrote Memoirs from the Women’s Prison during her incarceration for ‘crimes against the state'; Ogoni environmental activist, novelist and dramatist Ken Saro Wiwa was hanged in 1995 in Nigeria despite unprecedented outcry over his summary murder trial. In 2008, young student Parwez Kambakhsh was sentenced to death in Afghanistan for blasphemy.

The stories of many other writers – including Brodsky, Rushdie, Nasrin, Soyinka, Portnoy, Breytenbach – and their own words have much to say about the nature of persecution and challenges to freedom of expression in modern times. These 50 have been chosen as representative of PEN’s work; for each of them, there are hundreds more who have been imprisoned, killed, disappeared or otherwise punished simply for speaking their minds. Each PEN Centre with a Writers in Prison Committee has its own list of important cases, many of which will be recalled in these pages over the coming year.