PEN's Writers in Prison Committee: The hard cases and sweet successesof its work

Originally published in the Independent on Friday, 10 December 2010

Josef Brodsky, María Elena Cruz Varela, Salman Rushdie, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Aung San Suu Kyi and Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Chinese dissident who today will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo: very different writers, from very different backgrounds, but what do they have in common? They all suffered persecution because of their work and all were taken up by PEN's Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. During the 15 years I worked for the committee, we recorded some huge successes, such as the release of Iranian writer Faraj Sarkohi, who "disappeared" in 1996 and was then held in untried detention for nine months. We also witnessed tragic events, such as the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria in December 1995 and the murder of award-winning Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya in October 2006. When Aung San Suu Kyi was released from prison in Burma last month, it was the culmination of one of the WiPC's longest campaigns and serves to underline why the committee's work continues to matter so much.

On his release, the Iranian editor Faraj Sarkohi wrote that "I have not been alone. Not in prison, nor on the torture bed, nor when they announced my death sentence. PEN was with me. I was rescued from prison and death. Where do I belong in exile? To nowhere except literature, the only concern that remained for me. To nowhere except PEN, the only family that remained for me." Sarkohi later told me that every time a gun was held to his head, he recalled Beethoven's "Ode to Joy", transporting him to another realm, and giving him the necessary distance to ensure his survival.

Not all of our campaigns have been so high-profile. In 2002, I went to Belarus to meet the journalist Mikola Markovich. The experience remains vividly in my mind. Accompanied by my colleague and translator from the PEN centre in Minsk, I took the train to the remote town of Osipovichi, where Markovich was detained. In a surreal turn of events, when we arrived at the prison I had to pretend to be Russian in order to be allowed to take Markovich out for lunch.

This limited freedom was seldom enjoyed, given that he was detained miles from his family and so rarely received visitors. I remember him telling us the importance of messages of solidarity from writers in distant countries: "Sometimes we feel a lack of support in our own country, so when we hear warm words from people with totally different lifestyles, it makes you feel much better and helps you through the ordeal."

At the end of the allotted two hours, we walked to the station. My final image of the writer was of a lonely figure on the platform, waving goodbye, as we sat on the train back to Minsk and freedom.

I was able to make that trip, and another to the grim prison-state of Uzbekistan, because the WiPC had recently extended its remit to include attending trials and visiting prisoners. The committee had come a long way since its modest beginnings. It was Paul Labori, a Hungarian writer and member of the English PEN Centre, who first suggested the foundation of an International Writers in Prison Committee. Its mission was to investigate the cases of writers imprisoned solely for their writings and opinions, and to co-ordinate the actions of the international centres. The committee was set up in 1960 and was comprised of just three members, including the then PEN president, the novelist Storm Jameson.

Gradually other committees were formed in different countries. Dedicated to PEN's charter, in which "literature knows no frontiers", centres began to make imprisoned writers honorary members. WiPC members became "minders" to prisoners and would write to them, helping to raise their status in the eyes of the prison authorities, and, at the same time, providing them with the psychological support of knowing that they were not forgotten. As well as the painstaking letter-writing and appeals to governments, famous writers have taken to the streets on behalf of their colleagues imprisoned in places as diverse as the Maldives, Iran and Nigeria.

There are now Writers in Prison Committees in 64 PEN centres worldwide. PEN's list of cases grew from just 56 in 1960 to more than 900 in 2010. These included Josef Brodsky, arrested in 1963 after being denounced in the Evening Leningrad newspaper which claimed his poems were "pornographic and anti-Soviet". The Cuban María Elena Cruz Varela was sentenced to two years in prison in 1991 for "disrespect for the institutions of Cuba", "insulting the heroes of Cuba", and "illegal association". The popular Nigerian novelist, Ken Saro-Wiwa, was arrested and executed for his outspoken opposition to Nigeria's military government, his defence of the Ogoni people, and for highlighting the environmental damage caused by multinational oil companies.

The greatest joy for anyone involved with the committee is meeting the writers upon their release. I particularly recall my first encounter with the Syrian poet and journalist, Faraj Bayrakdar, whom I met in London in 2001. When I asked for his email address he looked at me blankly and offered me a fax number where I could reach him. Suddenly, it dawned on me. He had been arrested on 31 March 1987 by Syria's military intelligence and had been detained for almost 14 years. The internet, worldwide web and emails had all passed him by.

Like Sarkohi, Bayrakdar was tortured in prison and he described how he had lost all sensation in his arms after having his spine stretched out on the "German Chair"; a form of torture employed by the Nazis during the Second World War and adopted by the Syrian military intelligence. One thing I learned quickly at PEN is that repressive regimes share torture methods.

History also often repeats itself. In March 1985, Harold Pinter and Arthur Miller took a trip to Turkey in order to draw attention to the plight of those imprisoned or persecuted for their opinions. Upon their arrival they were greeted by a young Turkish author who was to be their guide. His name was Orhan Pamuk. Exactly 20 years later, novelist and Independent columnist, Joan Smith, then chair of English PEN's WiPC, was in Istanbul to monitor Pamuk's trial. The author was charged with "denigrating Turkish identity". He faced up to three years in prison for a newspaper interview in which he was quoted as saying that "Thirty-thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares to talk about it". Pamuk was referring to the killing of thousands of Armenians in 1915-17 by Ottoman forces and those Kurdish killed since 1984 in the conflict between Turkish forces and Kurdish separatists. Following international pressure, the charges were dropped on a technicality. But news of the interview and subsequent trial led to protests and copies of Pamuk's books being burned. He also received death threats from extremists.

PEN has not forgotten the connection made by the 19th-century German author, Heinrich Heine: "Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings". It is vocal in its condemnation of such actions. In 1988, Salman Rushdie was accused of blasphemy, apostasy, and insulting the Islamic faith in sections of his book, The Satanic Verses, that some Muslims found offensive. There were book burnings and Rushdie received death threats. In the following year, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa from Iran calling for Rushdie's execution. And just two months ago, Rohinton Mistry's novel, Such a Long Journey, was cut from Mumbai University's reading list.

The banning came in response to complaints from Shiv Sena, an extremist Hindu nationalist political party known for using violent tactics to intimidate opponents. Copies of the book were burned at the university gates and one of the leaders, speaking to a television crew in Hindi, reportedly said that Mistry is lucky to live in Canada, for "if he were here, we would burn him as well".

Today, writers continue to languish in jail. Liu Xiaobo, a renowned literary critic, poet and political activist, was charged with "inciting subversion of state power" after co-authoring Charter 08, a declaration calling for political reform, greater human rights, and an end to one-party rule in China. The Charter was signed by hundreds of individuals throughout China and was intended to commemorate the 60th Anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Liu was arrested on 8 December 2008, just before the Charter's formal release, and on 25 December 2009 he was sentenced to 11 years in prison.

PEN was quick to respond. "Liu Xiaobo's case is about agreed international human rights standards, not merely the internal affairs of China," said John Ralston Saul, president of International PEN. "China is signatory to international treaties and conventions, and cannot be given a free pass when it acts against its own and international standards."

American PEN organised a petition. That the signatories included Margaret Atwood, Jung Chang, JM Coetzee, Don DeLillo, Carol Ann Duffy, Umberto Eco, Ian McEwan, Michael Ondaatje, Wole Soyinka and Sir Tom Stoppard illustrated the depth of feeling about his case.

Dictatorships come and go. But for PEN, the tradition of solidarity between writers prevails. Since its founding, the organisation has been instrumental in highlighting the courage of writers worldwide. That Liu Xiaobo is not able to collect his Nobel Prize today demonstrates why the Writers in Prison Committee is needed more than ever.

Lucy Popescu was Programme Director of English PEN's Writers in Prison Committee, 1991-2006, and is the co-editor of the PEN anthology 'Another Sky'. The 50th anniversary of the Committee is marked on 16 December with the launch of 'Beyond Bars', a special issue of Index on Censorship's magazine