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International Women's Day: PEN protests the persecution of three courageous writers

Friday 27 February 2015 - 11:12am


On 8 March, while the world celebrates International Women’s Day, PEN International and the Women Writers Committee will be protesting the imprisonment and/or persecution of three courageous women writers: Khadija Ismayilova (Azerbaijan), Sanjuana Martínez Montemayor (Mexico) and Gao Yu (China). Each of these women has suffered prolonged persecution - either at the hands of their respective governments, or from other parties – purely because of their work.

They also each share a strong connection with PEN, whether as a PEN member or through collaborative work with us: Ismayilova participated in a PEN International-Article 19 side event on Azerbaijan at  the United Nations’ 16th Universal Periodic Review session in 2013; Martínez collaborated with English PEN to highlight the case of the persecuted journalist, Lydia Cacho; Gao Yu is a long-standing member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC).

On International Women’s Day, please take action on behalf of Khadija Ismayilova, Sanjuana Martínez Montemayor and Gao Yu: you can do this in a number of ways. Below, you will find more information about these writers and some suggested calls to make to the relevant authorities. We hope that you will also promote these cases on social media and with your national press.

‘The PEN International Women Writers Committee honors women writers who are imprisoned or otherwise persecuted simply for exercising their right to freedom of expression. Writers such as  Khadija Ismayilova, Sanjuana Martinez Montemayor and Gao Yu must be able carry out their work without fear.

We stand united with women writers across the globe and call on governments to protect their basic human rights.' - Ekbal Baraka, Chair of the PEN International Women Writers Committee.

khadija iKhadija Ismayilova (Azerbaijan) is an investigative journalist, a radio host for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, and is well known - both within Azerbaijan and internationally - for her exposures of high level corruption and for her criticism of the Azerbaijani government’s crackdown on opposition voices. Because of her work, she has been the target of a relentless campaign of intimidation and judicial harassment over the last two years.

Ismayilova was arrested on 5 December 2014, on suspicion of inciting another journalist’s attempted suicide. She is currently being held in pre-trial detention, and has recently been charged with a number of other offences, including embezzlement, illegal business, tax evasion, and abuse of power.

In October last year, on returning home from a meeting with Council of Europe officials in Strasbourg, she was detained for several hours at Baku airport; in February of the same year she was called several times as a witness in an investigation into the leaking of state secrets; in April 2013, videos secretly recorded in the journalist’s apartment were posted online; in March 2012, following her investigation into  President Aliyev's family's alleged interests in lucrative construction projects in Baku ahead of the Eurovision Song Contest, she received anonymous threats and warnings to stop her investigation: when she refused, an explicit video (allegedly depicting her) was posted online. If convicted on the current charges against her, she could face up to 19 years in prison.  PEN believes that the charges against Ismayilova are a politically-motivated response to her work exposing corruption at the highest levels of Azerbaijani society. Take action for Khadija Ismayilova here.

martinezSanjuana Martínez Montemayor (Mexico) is a journalist for the newspapers SinEmbargo and La Jornada; she is the author of at least seven books and also publishes on her own website. Martínez has been the target of harassment since at least 2008. On 24 December 2014, she was arrested and held incommunicado for several hours at the attorney general’s offices in Nuevo León, on suspicion of making a false declaration to the court relating to an amparo (legal protection of her constitutional rights), granted to her in 2012. However, a local rights group has suggested that her arrest could be linked to an article published in La Jornada on 14 December 2014 in which she denounced the alleged rape of a member of the Tamaulipas state police force by an officer of superior rank in the Mexican Army; on the same day that the article was published, Martínez' house was ransacked by unknown intruders who damaged some of her property.

She has stated that her arrest and harassment were in reprisal for her writing, which has been fiercely critical of the Mexican establishment. Her two books on the sexual abuse that allegedly took place in the Catholic Church in Mexico - Prueba de Fe (Test of Faith), published in 2007, and Manto Púrpura (Purple Cloak), published in 2006 - made her the target of an prolonged campaign of death threats and other harassment.

She was the victim of a similar campaign in 2014 following the publication of her most recent book, Las amantes del poder: los escandalosos usos y abusos del poder publico en la vida privada (The Lovers of Power: the scandalous use and abuse of public power in private life). Take action for Sanjuana Martínez Montemayor here.

HONG KONG-LITERATURE-FREEDOMGao Yu (China) is a former chief editor of Economics Weekly and contributor to the German newspaper Deutsche Welle. She ‘disappeared’ on 23 April 2014 and was held incommunicado for two weeks before the authorities disclosed, in a televised ‘confession,’ that she was being held on suspicion of ‘leaking state secrets abroad’.

According to news reports, her trial – behind closed doors - began in November 2014 and lasted four hours; nothing is known publicly about the verdict. At the time of her disappearance Gao Yu was writing a column entitled ‘Party Nature vs. Human Nature,’ which is said to focus on the new leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and its internal conflicts. The article was never submitted, and when she did not attend a 26 April event in Beijing to commemorate the 4 June 1989 anti-government protests, friends reported her disappearance. Gao Yu had also been due to travel to Hong Kong to speak at the annual awards ceremony of the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC), of which she is a member, on 3 May.

Gao Yu’s televised ‘confession’ was broadcast in a news report on China’s national broadcaster CCTV in the early hours of 8 May 2014.  The report blurred out her face but showed her full name, ending speculation over her whereabouts. In the broadcast Gao Yu said ‘I admit that what I’ve done touched on legal issues and threatened national interests.’ She said that she was ‘deeply remorseful’ of her actions and ‘willing to accept legal punishment’.

The ‘confession’ is feared to have been extracted under duress, heightening concerns for her well-being and chance of a fair trial. The right to a fair trial, as enshrined in Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights includes the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty and not to be compelled to testify against oneself or to confess guilt. As a signatory to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which provides for freedom of legitimate expression, the right not to be arbitrarily detained and the right to a fair trial, China is obliged to ‘refrain from acts that would defeat or undermine the treaty’s objective and purpose.’

According to Gao’s lawyer, the charges against her are believed to be based on a document known as ‘Document Number 9,’ which Gao wrote the previous year. The document is said to detail the government’s vision of pushing economic reforms while maintaining ideological controls concerning issues such as democracy, civil society and freedom of press.

Gao has been a PEN main case since 1989, when she was one of the first people to be detained in the crackdown on pro-democracy protests. She was first arrested on 3 June 1989 for an article she wrote for a Hong Kong newspaper supporting student protesters in Tiananmen Square, and was imprisoned for over a year.

She spent a further five and a half years in prison from 1993-99 for ‘providing state secrets to parties outside [China’s] borders’ in a series of political and economic articles in Hong Kong-based publications. Gao Yu is known for her fiercely critical political analysis and knowledge of the inner circles of the Chinese Communist Party. Take action for Gao Yu here.


PEN Centres supporting women and girls across the globe

Note to PEN Centres

Please keep us informed of any action you take with regard to these cases on International Women’s Day 2015, and of any responses you receive.

For further details contact Cathal Sheerin at the Writers in Prison Committee London Office:  PEN International, Brownlow House, 50/51 High Holborn, London WC1V 6ER UK Tel: + 44 (0) 20 7405 0338  Fax: + 44 (0) 20 7405 0339  e-mail: