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PEN Details Writers In Prison And Killed

Twenty countries come under scrutiny at International PEN's annual congress

SOURCE: Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), International PEN, London

(WiPC/IFEX) - The following is a 29 September 2004 International PEN statement:

Twenty Countries Come Under Scrutiny at International PEN's Congress in Norway

"Freedom of speech is a source of power. If used constructively, it is amazing what speech can do. It can fight corruption, free political prisoners, and make oppressive regimes crumble."

In his keynote speech at the opening ceremony of the 70th International Congress of International PEN, held in Tromsø, Norway, His Royal Highness Crown Prince Haakon of Norway pinpointed the reasons why so many governments today fear those who speak out. Today there are over 160 writers and journalists in prison for having practiced their right to speak out against injustice. Between January and June this year alone, PEN's Writers in Prison Committee has monitored over 740 attacks upon writers, ranging from long term imprisonment, persistent harassment, threats, attacks, and, most shockingly, 11 murders.

At PEN's annual congress, held between 6th-12th September 2004, delegates from over fifty countries took the opportunity to protest the attacks against their fellow writers in twenty countries.

Resolutions expressing shock at the murders of journalists in Russia , Nepal and Mexico reflect the fact that journalism today is an extremely risky profession in all parts of the globe. The assassination in August of the Russian journalist Paul Klebnikov brought the number of reporters killed in the country since 2000 to fifteen, making it one of the most dangerous countries in which to attempt to investigate or question those in power.

PEN members joined in the international protests at the kidnappings of the two French journalists held in Iraq , calling on all those holding authority in the country to do their utmost to secure their release.

Now, as in 1960, when the Writers in Prison Committee was founded, long prison sentences are used to silence writers and to warn others against speaking out. China, Burma, Uzbekistan, Cuba, Vietnam, Eritrea, and Iran were all singled out as guilty of holding writers as prisoners. From all these countries PEN has received reports of ill-treatment and poor conditions in the prisons. Notable is the case of the Iranian writer and lawyer, serving a five year prison term, who, it is reported, was set upon by criminal convicts in July this year when he and other prisoners staged a protest in their cells.

Even democratic countries such as Australia, Canada, Spain and the USA came under PEN's scrutiny this year. The United States government's imposition of regulations require any writer or publisher to seek a licence before they can collaborate with any other writer from a country that is under a US trade embargo - Iran, Cuba, North Korea and Sudan - or face a fine or even imprisonment. PEN sees these restrictions as absurd, and an infringement of the US First Amendment that allows for free flow of information and ideas, regardless of frontiers. On Canada, PEN protested the court orders and home searches of writers and journalists in an attempt to uncover the sources of news reports on issues that could embarrass those in authority. PEN condemned the imprisonment of writers who had fled from persecution only to find themselves incarcerated in refugee detention camps in Australia, with little access to the outside world. Even when freed, they find themselves faced with huge bills for the costs of their enforced stay. Trials against those involved with a Basque newspaper under anti-terror legislation in Spain led PEN to question the validity of the charges and the trial process.

Although Turkey's human rights record is much improved in recent years, PEN was led to protest the continuing trials against writers and publishers. In Egypt, the recent banning of a book by the well known feminist writer, Nawal El-Sadawi, led PEN to protest not only this but also the fact that Muslim theologians are authorised to order searches of bookshops for publications that are seen to violate the dominant interpretation of the Koran.

The prospect of the World Summit on the Information Society being held in Tunisia in December 2005, raises questions about how such a summit, which should be dedicated to the promotion of the free flow of information, can be held in a country where the independent press is suppressed, and internet activists find themselves in prison. Internet writers in China, Vietnam and the Maldives have all found themselves under attack. In August this year, four internet activists imprisoned in the Maldives, who had been allowed out of prison into house arrest, were beaten when they took part in demonstrations calling for democratic reforms, leading to a resolution condemning the attacks. Zimbabwe's systematic abuses of human rights has also severely hampered the independent media, and PEN called again for a return to democracy and adherence to human rights norms.

The Writers in Prison Committee of International PEN bade farewell to Eugene Schoulgin who stepped down after serving four years as the Committee's Chair and who has been elected onto the International PEN board. It welcomed to the post Dr Karin Clark of the German PEN Centre and formerly of PEN's Writers in Prison Committee.

© Scoop Media

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