Leading authors mount international open-letter protest to defend 900 persecuted writers

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Yann Martel and Alberto Manguel among those hoping to let incarcerated writers and the wider world know that they ‘are not forgotten’

‘You are one of God’s spies’ … Alberto Manguel’s letter to MahvashSabet
‘You are one of God’s spies’ … Alberto Manguel’s letter to MahvashSabet

Nine hundred writers around the world were harassed, imprisoned, murdered or “disappeared” last year, according to PEN International. On Monday, the writers’ organisation has selected just five of them, from a teacher and poet currently serving a 20-year prison sentence in Iran to a Paraguayan writer who has just been sentenced to jail for allegedly plagiarising a novel, and has asked its free members to stand in solidarity with their silenced colleagues.

Harnessing its greatest asset – its authors – PEN is planning to publish an open letter to each of the five imprisoned writers every day this week, in the run up to the 33rd annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer on 15 November. It has begun the exercise with the award-winning Argentina-born author Alberto Manguel’s open missive to MahvashSabet, who has been detained in Iran since 2008 as one of a group of seven Bahá’i Faith leaders. Her sentence, said PEN, which is calling for her release, relates to her “faith and activities related to running the affairs of the Bahá’í community in Iran”, and she has received “appalling treatment and deprivations during pre-trial detention”.

Her lawyer, MahnazParakand, has written in the introduction to a book of poetry by Sabet, published during her incarceration, that he first met her on a hot summer’s day, in the presence of two women guards, handcuffed to a companion. “It was obvious that the Bahá’í prisoners had been deprived of fresh air and daylight for a long time; their entire beings seemed thirsty for the energising heat and light of the sun. However, despite all their hardships, their will remained unbroken and they were determined to give up their lives, if necessary, for their beliefs,” Parakand, a member of the Centre for Human Rights Defenders, has written of his encounter with the married mother of two adult children.

Sabet began writing her poetry while incarcerated. “You end one of your poems saying that ‘You can’t see the sorrow after lights out,’ and that you therefore ‘long for the dark, total black-out.’ I hope, for your dear sake, that the end of your sorrow is near but not as that ‘total black-out’ you speak of: instead, as a resolution of freedom, as the free sunlight that is every person’s natural right, a right no one is entitled to take away,” Manguel writes to her.

Offering his solidarity to the poet, Manguel reminds her of the “vast and honoured company” of imprisoned writers of the past, from Boethius to Cervantes, telling her “that generations of readers to come will remember your name as they remember theirs, long after the names of your jailers have been swept off the memory of the earth”.

According to PEN International’s statistics for last year, they knew of 900 writers at risk in 2013. Of that total, 283 were either detained or already serving long-term prison sentences, 39 had received death threats and 33 were subsequently killed.

On Tuesday, Life of Pi author Yann Martel will release an open letter to AzimjonAskarov, a human rights journalist from Kyrgyzstan’s Uzbek minority who has been sentenced to life imprisonment. PEN has said that the charges against him, of organising mass disorder and complicity in the murder of a police officer, are politically motivated, to prevent his reporting, and that he received an unfair trial, and was being tortured and ill-treated in detention.

“Where we can they are being sent to the writers directly,” said PEN International spokesperson Sahar Halaimzai of the letters. “And in cases where this is not possible they will be sent to their friends and family.” PEN International is calling for the immediate and unconditional release of all five writers, and for the charges against them to be dropped.

Wednesday will see Argentinian writer Luisa Valenzuela write to the Paraguayan author Nelson Aguilera, who received a sentence of 30 months in prison on 4 November for allegedly plagiarising a novel. Aguilera has been accused of plagiarising Maria Eugenia Garay’s 2005 novel El túnel del tiempo (The Tunnel of Time) in his 2010 novel for children Karumbita: La patriota (Karumbita: The Patriot), but PEN says that at least six independent experts have found the similarities between the works “cannot be described as plagiarism”.

Later in the week, open letters will be sent to the Cameroonian poet DieudonnéEnohMeyomesse, who is serving what PEN calls a politically motivated seven-year sentence, and who is in poor health, and to Chinese journalist Gao Yu, who “disappeared” in April, and who remains detained pending trial, her exact whereabouts unknown amid “serious concerns for her well-being” from the writers’ organisation.

“November 15 is a day of action and acknowledgment,” said Marian Botsford Fraser, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee. “It is PEN’s way of saying to all of our 900 imprisoned, harassed, murdered and disappeared writers: you are not silenced. You are not forgotten. We stand with you and fight for you.”

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