Day of the Imprisoned Writer

To be imprisoned or deprived of earning a living for exercising one’s right to freedom of expression, a fundamental democratic right guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, continues to be as common today as it was 42 years ago , when PEN International, the global organization for writers, established its Committee for the Defense of Writers in Prison. Over the last decade, more than 300 writers, journalists and media workers have died for denouncing corruption, stating their political opinions, or for having criticized the powerful, whether in government or the private sector (including the drug trafficking business).

Journalists are the most frequent victims of these practices of drastic silencing. Unfortunately, either through a lack of political will, threats or corrupt officialdom, the majority of these murders are not investigated and their perpetrators go unpunished. This very impunity and lack of justice leads to more attacks against professional writers. Although PEN International has continually defended the right to freedom of expression, this 15th of November, the 15,000 members in 90 countries will undertake a special campaign to celebrate the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, as they have been doing since 1980. In order to illustrate the geographical nature of the problem five victims have been selected to represent the variety of attacks suffered over the last 12 months by 700 writers, poets, journalists and publishers in 100 countries.

In Cuba last April, 75 dissidents, including 29 writers and journalists, were summarily imprisoned and condemned to prison terms ranging from 16 to 26 years. This massive abuse of the right to freedom of expression earned condemnation throughout the world for longtime dictator Fidel Castro, and even criticism from writers who had been loyal to him up to the time of this barbarous action. Among the arrested were 9 journalists who had been working with CubaNet, an Internet site based in Miami. Their trial lasted for one day and their sentences are to be served hundreds of kilometers away from their homes. They share their tiny cells with rats, cockroaches, scorpions and mosquitoes. Their crime: taking advantage of the Internet facilities offered by James Cason, head of the Special Interests Section of the United States in Havana, because of difficulty accessing the Internet which is monitored by the authorities in Cuba. They were found guilty of conspiring with James Cason against the independence of the territorial integrity of the State. Two years ago, Hector Maseda Gutierrez, who is 60 years old and condemned to a term of 20 years, described on CubaNet the visit of an official of the political police to the president of the Support Group of the College of Independent Teachers in Cuba, who had been hospitalized for three months with circulatory problems. Maseda wrote: “the message of the political police was the following: we come to give you some advice, taking into account your advanced age and state of health. You cannot stand another prison term. You won’t leave there alive. Be smart and stop collecting signatures for the so-called Varela Project. When you go back to Valle Elena we won’t let you revolutionize it. If you don’t obey we will bring you before the courts again.”

Once again the military junta in Myamar (Burma) has placed under house arrest the writer and leader of the National League for Democracy, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Daw San Suu Kyi. Since 1986, the daughter of General Aung San, a hero of Burmese independence, has led a movement for a peaceful transition to democracy in her country. In 1988, after a brutal repression by the army, in which thousands of citizens died, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi campaigned for the elections promised by the junta. She was detained in July 1989 and remained under arrest until 1995. Arrested again in 2000 she managed, thanks to intervention by the United Nations, to obtain her freedom in 2002. On May 30, 2003, when invited to speak in a small town, her convoy was attacked (possibly ambushed), and she was detained, “for her own protection” according to her captors. She is still being held. In 1991, when she received in absentia the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, she wrote: “it is not the power that corrupts, it is the fear. The fear of losing power corrupts those who exercise it, and fear of the whip of power corrupts those who suffer under it. Given the close relationship between fear and corruption, it is not surprising that in any society where fear abounds, corruption in all its forms will be entrenched.”

For the first time in ten years a writer has been imprisoned in Morocco. He is Ali Lmrabet, publisher of two weekly magazines, Demain and Douman. He was sentenced to three years for insulting the king, that is to say he published articles and cartoons in his magazines about the annual rent paid by the Moroccan parliament to the royal family. Both publications were banned. After a 47 day hunger strike in protest against police threats and restrictions on his right to freedom of movement, Ali Lmrabet is suffering from kidney trouble, eyesight problems and is in a state of extreme weakness. He is not receiving adequate medical attention. In prison he keeps a diary which is published monthly in Le Courier International and El Pais. He has written; “two days after my confinement in the Sale Prison, I began to receive unusual visits. A small crowd of prisoners serving long sentences brought me their voluminous files to solicit my help. I tried to explain to my cellmates that the regime had banned my magazines and I was no more than a prisoner like them.”

In Belarus, the scientist Yuri Bandazhevsky, who was arrested in 1999 for criticizing the government’s response to the people affected by the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986, will be in prison until 2006. Bandazhevsky, the author of books and articles about the effects of radioactive emissions on human beings, has stated: “the Chernobyl catastrophe had an enormous psychological effect on me, as on many others. I thought it was my duty as a doctor to work for a solution to the problems caused by this catastrophe.” The charges against Bandazhevsky were for receiving bribes, but his defenders, both inside and outside Belarus, are convinced he is being punished for criticizing public health officials and, above all, for insisting that the levels of radioactivity around Chernobyl are still responsible for the high incidence of sickness, especially in children.

The Syrian government is putting the Kurdish poet, Marwan Osman on trial. He could be condemned to 15 years of hard labor for inciting sectarian conflict and attempting a partial separation from Syrian territory. He was deprived of his liberty five days after participating in a peaceful demonstration for Kurdish rights in Syria. He has been held in a prison north of Damascus where he is believed to be incommunicado, and subjected to torture and mistreatment. Marwan Osman, a playwright and publisher of the magazine Cases and Dialogues has written: “Dry tears/fall from my eyes/Words without meaning/spring from my tongue/in the name of these dry tears/rhetorical questions/and many other things:/No, I am not alone.”

This 15th of November, by their campaign to publicize the dangers faced by those exercising their right to freedom of expression, and to end the repression of this fundamental right, members of PEN International will show that Marwan Osman and other persecuted writers in different parts of the world, are not alone