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STRENGTH IN NUMBERS
This issue brings together some of the world’s finest writers to look back at one of the longest running campaigns for freedom of expression: PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC). Run mostly by writers, for writers, it marks its fiftieth anniversary this year, and while its case histories and supporters read like a hall of literary fame, including Wole Soyinka, Václav Havel, Breyten Breytenbach, Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Anna Politkovskaya, the continuing necessity of its existence can never be a cause for celebration.
Sometimes, the committee’s campaigns have caused outrage, as in the case of Arthur Miller and Harold Pinter’s visit to Turkey in 1985, when they confronted the US ambassador to Ankara about torture and were thrown out of his residence. At others, they have been part of a sustained international outcry that ends with the prisoner’s release, as in the cases of Jack Mapanje from Malawi and Irina Ratushinskaya from Russia. At the very least, the committee provides support to the writer who fears that the world has forgotten them: attending trials, visiting countries, writing letters and always bearing witness.
‘It helps to remember that we are not alone, nor forgotten, as our captors would like us to think,’ writes Léster Luis González Pentón, one of the Black Spring writers released from a Cuban jail last July (pp. 115-119). Faraj Sarkoohi, imprisoned in Iran in the 1990s, told novelist and PEN campaigner Moris Farhi: ‘Though I was held incommunicado in prison, news of your activities somehow reached me. That gave me the strength to keep going’ (pp. 24-26).
Even though the world has changed dramatically since the WiPC was founded, writers remain as vulnerable to dictators and bullies as ever. As Ron Deibert points out, the freedom so happily anticipated online has not quite come to fruition. Bloggers are the most recent to join the front line, exposed to the surveillance and intimidation of regimes wanting to control information (pp. 88-92).
The contributors to this issue also explore the moral dilemmas and pitfalls that face all human rights campaigners. Maureen Freely points out
Credit: Brett Biedscheid