On November 15 every year, PEN International observes the Day of the Imprisoned Writer by highlighting five representative cases of authors who are persecuted for their work. Many more are on the association's radar.
"Each letter day, I get so many letters from PEN members that I am engulfed by very beautiful feelings," wrote Zehra Dogan from the Diyarbakir Prison in Turkey. "I suppose in places such as these where everything is banned the strength of a single pen […] is a great force. It is because they know that writing is a magical force that they are left hopeless against it. I can feel myself with you, always and perhaps this is why I never feel helpless."
The Kurdish activist and journalist was imprisoned twice because of her work. Zehra Dogan's arrest drew international condemnation, and PEN International contributed to the campaign for her release. She was freed in February 2019.
Many more authors, publishers, journalists are still in prison or harassed for their work. Every year on November 15, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, PEN International emphasizes five cases representing repression in different world regions — this year, the association calls for special appeals for Lydia Cacho Ribeiro (Mexico), Stella Nyanzi (Uganda), Shakthika Sathkumara (Sri Lanka), Nedim Türfent (Turkey) and Galal El-Behairy (Egypt). All five writers are portrayed in the following picture gallery.
Persecuted writers: the PEN International case list
Beyond these five specific cases, PEN International is monitoring many more. In 2018, the worldwide association of authors was following 205 cases of writers persecuted for their work. Among them, 68 were in prison specifically for their writing.
Two of the cases concerned writers who were killed in 2018: Shahzahan Bachchu, a 60-year-old publisher, poet, and blogger on secular issues from Bangladesh who was murdered by Islamists, and former Danish gang member Nedim Yasar, who was shot on the day of his book launch — a work relating his experience with gangs.
Among PEN's monitored cases, 20 of them concern writers who have been murdered since 2006, but whose deaths remain unpunished by law.
Other cases focus on the judicial harassment, threats and attacks experienced by authors. Many other writers are currently on trial.
The graphic above displays the regions in which these cases are located. Among the 88 cases observed in Asia, 32 authors are behind bars — mostly in China.
Two thirds of those imprisoned in Europe / Central Asia are in Turkey, and nearly just as many are currently on trial in the country. The most recent case concerns Turkish writer and journalist Ahmet Altan, who was rearrested on November 12, just eight days after he had been released from prison after having already spent over three years in pre-trial detention.
Only a snapshot of a larger phenomenon
PEN International gathers its information from international NGOs such as Freedom House, Index on Censorship, Reporters without Borders, Article 19 and Committee to Protect Journalists.
PEN International supports the work of these media rights organisations, its focus is, however, on cases of people who firstly define themselves as writers — even though many of them are also journalists and activists. Beyond the two cases of murdered writers mentioned above, several other reporters were assassinated last year. The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 34 journalists were killed in retaliation for their work, including the prominent case of Jamal Khashoggi, who was tortured and murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
PEN also notes that its list of cases "can only provide a snapshot of what is likely to be a larger phenomenon: offenses are often not reported, writers may self-censor, and other obstacles arise in terms of documenting the silencing of writers."
The campaigns initiated by PEN International include sending letters to the concerned governments and getting the campaigners' own governments involved in supporting detained and persecuted writers.
PEN International provides specific names of authorities and contacts to send out appeals. Another simple way to take action is to share the stories of these writers on social media, using the hashtag #ImprisonedWriter.