They are not alone, Margaret Beames

Margaret Beames outlines PEN International’s efforts on behalf of writers imprisoned for their work. 

Thirty-nine-year-old journalist and poet Shi Tao is in prison. In November 2004 he was arrested without a warrant at his home in Taiyuan, northwest China, his writings, computer and other personal belongings confiscated. According to government-run news agency Xinhua, he was guilty of posting online notes he took on a government document that was read out at an editorial meeting of the publication he used to work for. Shi Tao is three years into his 10-year sentence, to be followed by two years “deprivation of political rights” for “revealing state secrets”. He was said in June this year to be suffering from respiratory problems as a result of forced labour, and also reported as having a heart condition, an ulcer and skin problems.

Shi Tao is just one of many cases taken up by International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC). International PEN was founded in 1921 “to promote the cause of literatures everywhere” and “to champion the freedom of the written word”, and there are now 145 PEN Centres in 104 countries. In 1960, as a result of mounting concern about attempts to silence critical voices through the detention of writers, WiPC was formed to come to the defence of writers and journalists around the world who run into trouble while carrying out their work. The committee works to secure the release of those unjustly imprisoned for their writing, as well as protesting against death threats, assassinations and attacks, and any form of censorship that threatens to silence writers and put their lives and livelihoods in danger.

The work began with a few individuals but has grown steadily – by 2002, the latest year for which figures are available, there were 55 active WiPC Centres in five continents and 40 countries. They monitor, in any given year, around 1000 cases, ranging from persistent harassment and threats to long prison sentences and even killings.

WiPC learns of cases from sources that include press reports, reports from individuals, family and friends of prisoners, embassy officials, lawyers and exile groups. Probably the most reliable source is Amnesty International. A team of researchers at WiPC in London examines each case and forwards details of those taken up to the appointed co-ordinator or “point person” in each centre. The co-ordinator then sends out the information to volunteers who write letters of appeal to heads of state and governments, and ministers of the victimised writer’s country.

Some WiPCs hold regular meetings to discuss and organise actions, which may be publicised. This is impractical in New Zealand, which currently has 27 members from Otago to Northland. Here, contact is mainly by email, although sometimes individuals may get together to publicise WiPC work, as was done in Canterbury last year. Most efforts go into responding to the Rapid Action Network (RAN), which asks appeals to be sent on behalf of writers in urgent need of protection. These are all well-researched cases.

Some actions the London WiPC recommends involve appeals against victimisation of writers in general, as in Cuba or Mexico; protests are ongoing over the murder in Russia of Anna Politkovskaya, shot dead in October 2006, and regular letters on the 19th of each month keep the memory of Hrant Dink alive in Turkey. In 2005, Turkey enacted its infamous Article 301 of the Penal Code, and Dink was one of the first to be convicted under it, accused of “insulting Turkishness” by his writing on the Armenian issue. Dink was gunned down outside his office on 19 January 2005.

The work can be dispiriting: does it achieve anything; does anyone ever read our letters? Then comes news of a release and, while there is rarely proof that WiPC letters were responsible for it, one has to believe they contributed. In 1998, after his release from an Iranian prison, Faraj Sarkouhi wrote:

I am honoured by the Honorary Membership of PEN …  .

It is a beautiful and promising manifestation of solidarity by those who value freedom of expression, thought, cultural creativity and human dignity …  . I definitely owe my life and my release from prison to the efforts of many individuals and organisations, and especially the different branches of PEN


Any WiPC branch can adopt a prisoner as an honorary member. New Zealand has Shi Tao in China and Win Tin in Myanmar (Burma). Sometimes letters can be sent to the prisoner directly; sometimes contact can be made through a family member. Certainly, letters are immensely encouraging to prisoners. The following (translated) is from a recent letter by Lester Gonzalez Penton, who at 30 is the youngest of 35 journalists, writers and librarians sentenced in Cuba in 2003. He is serving 20 years in prison:

I am writing to you to tell you how happy I was to receive the card you sent with your best wishes. I confess that it makes me very proud to receive a card from you along with cards from other PEN members. Your solidarity proves that I have not been forgotten, it proves that we are not alone and that many people around the world are worried about our unjust imprisonment.


Just the stamps on the envelope may be enough to show guards and prisoner that he or she is not forgotten, and lead to improved treatment and conditions.

A watch is kept even after a prisoner has been released, if he or she is still at risk. Lydia Cacho, Mexican author, poet, novelist, newspaper columnist and social activist, was accused of “defamation” by a businessman whom her book, The Demons of Eden: The Power Behind Pornography, named as having connections with a man being prosecuted for child prostitution. She was arrested at her office in Cancun, bundled into a vehicle at gunpoint and driven to Puebla, a journey of approximately 20 hours, before she even knew the charges against her.

She managed to get her case transferred to Mexico City where defamation has been decriminalised. (In states where it is still in effect, a person can be found guilty of “defamation” even if they can prove that what they wrote is true.) After a year-long struggle with the Mexican courts, Lydia Cacho was acquitted, but she still receives constant death threats and is under 24-hour protection. She remains on WiPC’s case list.

In the first half of this year, 39 journalists, writers and editors were killed, 31 disappeared, 210 were imprisoned, 57 received death threats, 70 were attacked or ill-treated, and another 100 were threatened or harassed. The list goes on. A total of 781 cases were investigated, with 41 prisoners released. And Shi Tao? In June, he was transferred to another prison with relatively better conditions. A Chinese correspondent writes:

According to his mother who visited him last month, Shi Tao had much better spirit and health, except for his stomach trouble uncured. Instead of hard physical labour in his former prison, he was just arranged to do the copy-tracing of mechanic drawings. Such changes of his living and labour conditions may possibly have resulted from the international campaigns on his behalf, to which all of you have contributed a lot since you have taken him as your HM.


Margaret Beames is co-ordinator of New Zealand’s Writers in Prison Committee. 



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