‘Vladimir Kozlov, like all writers who are imprisoned solely for their peaceful exercise of the right to free expression, is one of us’
Last week I had the extraordinary opportunity to meet imprisoned journalist and PEN Main Case Vladimir Kozlov at the penal colony in Zerechnore, Kazakhstan, where he is currently serving a seven-and-half-year prison sentence for ‘inciting social hatred and [planning] to overthrow the constitutional state’. Kozlov was arrested in 2012, shortly after he gave a briefing to the European Parliament on the police killing of 15 striking oil workers in Zhanaozen. At the time he was calling for an international investigation into the incident. Independent observers who followed his case after his arrest reported that he did not receive a fair trial.
Thanks to the work of the Kazakh PEN Centre we met with the head of the prison authorities and put in a request to visit Vladimir Kozlov, a journalist, human rights campaigner and a father of five. The youngest of his children was born in January, whilst he was in prison. During our visit, PEN International President, John Ralston Saul, International Secretary Hori Takeaki and I were stuck by the willingness of the Kazakh authorities to meet us and hear our concerns regarding the imprisonment of Vladimir Kozlov and another PEN Main Case, Aron Atabek.
Shortly after our request, we received news that our appeal to visit Kozlov in prison was granted – a rare occurrence, as often regimes that imprison dissident voices do not want them to have access to international organisations such as PEN. The following morning, Kazakh PEN member Vladimir Karcev and I were picked up by the head of Almaty Prison and driven to the Zerechnore.
When I finally met him, in the presence of prison guards and other representatives I was humbled by his gratitude and positivity. I told him that PEN had been campaigning for his release for some time, that PEN had brought his case to Human Rights Council of the UN and that he was one of the empty chair cases at this year’s PEN International Congress in Bishkek. The empty chair is an important symbol that PEN uses to highlight the cases of imprisoned writers. He told me that he was grateful and humbled that PEN had taken up his case and that we are campaigning for his freedom.
He told me about the birth of his youngest child and the contact he is allowed to have with is wife. I had met her the previous afternoon and the day I visited Kozlov was her birthday. He told me about his training regime and a book of his prison writing that he is compiling. He has access to the press and to writing materials. He is still publishing articles. Kazakh authorities had informed me earlier that Kozlov could be released next year, at which point he would have served half his prison term.
Kozlov – like all writers who are imprisoned solely for their peaceful exercise of the right to free expression – is one of us. Before I left I re-iterated the core work of PEN; our on-going fight for freedom of expression and what we all stand for; and that we would continue to campaign on his behalf and be his voice, as he was for others, until he is able to take his place among us.