Writing can be deadly | Culture | Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 15.11.2011

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Writing can be deadly

The Day of the Imprisoned Writer aims to recognize writers who resist the repression of the freedom of speech. The international P.E.N. organization is particularly active in helping those persecuted for their writings.

A Pakistani journalist flashes victory signs from inside the lockup of a police station

Criticizing some governments can land you in jail

It is an incredibly long list, featuing hundreds of names of people from all around the world - they are writers in jail.

The so-called Caselist is published by the international writers' association P.E.N. It consists of the names of writers, authors and journalists who have been jailed or murdered in just the past few months and those of people who have simply disappeared.

It is updated every six months.

In the first half of 2011, it is alleged there were 647 different attempts around the world to silence writers. Cases are rarely made public, but some of the better known ones include those of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya and Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink. It is thought that both were murdered - most likely because they published work that opposed the dominant powers within their countries.

Similarly, in the 1980s, death threats against Indian-British novelist Salman Rushdie made waves around the world.

The fear of free speech

But many cases - too many, some would say - are kept under wraps.

And this where P.E.N. comes in.

The London-based association has branches in nearly every country. Founded 90 years ago, it originally campaigned for peace and international understanding, but as a reaction to increasing attempts to silence voices of writers it established the Writers in Prison Committee in 1960. The committee deals exclusively with writers who are threatened, persecuted or censored.

Anna Politkovskaya

Politkovskaya's unsolved murder continues to attract international attention

The representative of Writers in Prison is Dirk Sager, vice-president of P.E.N. Germany and a former TV reporter.

During the Cold War, Sager reported from Moscow and East Berlin for West German channel ZDF. At the hands of the East German regime, he himself experienced what it is like to be silenced by a disapproving body of power, even though in his case it was "only" brief threats.

"In Iran, for example, authors and journalists regularly get into conflict with the state and end up in jail in Teheran, which is the most horrible thing you can imagine," says Sager.

The notorious Evin prison in Teheran is known for a number of cases involving torturing against prisoners, especially political prisoners, including dissident authors.

Iranian author Marina Nemat spent two years at Evin prison for publishing a critical school newspaper at the age of 16. Years later, in exile, she found the courage to write about her case, telling stories of cruel torture, sexual abuse, solitary confinement and executions. None of her fellow inmates survived.

Help is not easy

"Unfortunately, this horrifying persecution in Iran is completely secure from western influence," says Sager.

Persecution in China also often inspires feelings of powerlessness.

Nobel Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo is president of the independent P.E.N. center in China.

In December 2009 he was sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment for "inciting subversion of state power" and his wife was placed under house arrest. His "crime" was signing a manifesto called Charta 08 along with 350 other Chinese intellectuals. Charta 08 called for reform and democracy.

No one can say how many other authors are currently imprisoned in China. Some seem to have simply disappeared. The reasons for their prison sentences can sound absurd - for example, the alleged holding up of traffic.

"The Chinese government's main argument is that the authors aim to overthrow the state with their writings and opinions," says Sager. "The power structures and state control are questioned - and those in power fear this, and retaliate in the cruelest ways."

A widespread problem

Journalists in Istanbul march to protest against the threats to media rights

The arrests of Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik caused an outcry

Similar mistreatment of authors and journalists also takes place on the fringes of Europe.

Belarus has been politically ostracized since its last elections in December 2010 because the country's government is accused of crushing all forms of opposition. On the night of the election itself, several editorial offices were searched and journalists' computers were confiscated. Many members of the Belarusian P.E.N. club, including its former president, were beaten up and arrested.

In Turkey, journalists are imprisoned on a regular basis. The cases of reporters Nedim Sener and Ahmet Sik caused much controversy because both men were arrested for alleged involvement in a secret terrorist organization and planning to take part in a coup against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They are both still in custody.

Sik had written a book about Islamic influence on Turkey's security forces. The book has been banned in Turkey, where authorities describe it as document written by a terrorist organization.

Holding on to hope

Despite great adversity, the P.E.N association is sometimes successful in freeing imprisoned writers. Its tactics include letters to ministers of justice, negotiations, and threatening to publicize cases widely. Sager says the German branch of P.E.N. also tries to involve the German government.

"We’re against the German foreign ministry operating in such a way that the people being persecuted in China continue to be ignored just so that Germany can maintain a dialog with the Chinese government," explains Sager.

Dirk Sager

Sager believes in his cause

It is not an easy job, but every success motivates.

In Cuba, 75 prisoners were released last year. They now live in exile in Spain.

Progress has also been observed in Tunisia and Algeria after the recent political uprisings.

But the list of persecuted writers gets longer every year. And Sager knows the list is not even complete - despite P.E.N.'s close cooperation with Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders, which help provide the data.

It is sheer determination that keeps Sager and other P.E.N. members motivated.

"Because they fought for a better tomorrow and are suffering because of it," says Sager, "we cannot abandon them."

Author: Silke Wünsch / ew
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany

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