Freedom to Write Index 2019
During 2019, according to data collected for the inaugural edition of PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, at least 238 writers, academics, and public intellectuals were in prison or held in detention unjustly in connection with their writing, their work, or related activism. Many of these individuals have faced long-term detentions without charge, lengthy drawn-out trials, and in some cases severe prison sentences. While a total of 34 countries, ranging from democracies to authoritarian states, held writers behind bars, the majority were in just three countries: China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Among them, those three held 141 of the total of 238 cases in the Index. In recent years, these three countries have engaged in systematic crackdowns on free expression, including coordinated, mass arrests of literary writers, academics, publishers, columnists, journalists, and others. Of the myriad threats faced by the writers and intellectuals whose cases PEN America tracks, being held in detention or prison is by far the most common.
Writers Imprisoned Globally: 2019
In looking at the cases of writers and academics imprisoned for their work, several patterns emerge. For one, in countries where certain ethnic groups are more broadly discriminated against or subject to repression, we see efforts to silence those writing in the associated ethno-linguistic minority language or advocating for linguistic rights, for example with regard to Uyghur in China or Kurdish in Iran and Turkey. We also see efforts to discredit and stop the work of historians whose research counters efforts at historical revisionism. This is particularly true where research is delving into the truths of painful periods in a country’s history, such as the Cultural Revolution in China and the Stalinist era in Russia. We also note that, while relatively few of the cases in the Index are women, many of those are targeted in relation to their writing and advocacy on women’s rights, and those cases are primarily in Iran and Saudi Arabia. These patterns, explored further below, demonstrate some of the particular ways that writers and public intellectuals may be vulnerable, specifically because of how their work can challenge efforts by governments to advance certain narratives or to maintain or extend restrictions over certain groups.
The Freedom to Write Index represents a new element of PEN America’s year-round advocacy on behalf of writers, journalists, artists, intellectuals, and others who are under threat as a result of their writing and creative expression. Another flagship component of PEN America’s own advocacy is the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, given annually to an imprisoned writer targeted for exercising their freedom of expression. Of the 47 jailed writers who have received the Freedom to Write Award from 1987 to 2019, 41 have been released due in part to the global attention and pressure it generates, including three in 2019 itself. In all of our advocacy, PEN America works closely with the PEN International Secretariat and Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC), as well as the other members of the global PEN network. The Index and this report draw significantly from PEN International’s own 2019 Case List, which in turn reflects input from PEN centers around the world.
In this report, PEN America will explore trends related to the imprisonment of writers and intellectuals, including an examination of the countries that detain and imprison the largest numbers of writers and intellectuals, the types of legal charges most frequently used to target them, and the additional tactics used to suppress writers’ voices.
About the Freedom to Write Index
The 2019 Freedom to Write Index provides a count of the writers, academics, and public intellectuals who were held in prison or detention during 2019 in relation to their writing or for otherwise exercising their freedom of expression. For almost a century, PEN America and the global PEN network have defended the rights of writers and intellectuals to express themselves freely, and advocated on behalf of those who have faced threats as a result of their writing or other forms of expression. The criteria for inclusion in the Freedom to Write Index thus adhere closely to PEN International’s standards for selection for their annual Case List.
The Index is a count of individuals who primarily write literature, poetry, or other creative writing; essays or other nonfiction or academic writing; or online commentary. The Index includes journalists only in cases where they also fall into one of the former categories, or are opinion writers or columnists. To be included in the count, individuals must have spent at least 48 hours behind bars in a single instance of detention between January 1 and December 31, 2019. For the purposes of the Index and the status designations used to classify cases, imprisonment is considered to be when an individual is serving a sentence following a conviction, while detention accounts for individuals held in custody pending charges or those who have been charged and are being held prior to conviction. Writers are, of course, also subject to other types of threats, including censorship, harassment, legal charges without detention, or physical attacks, and these are also analyzed to a lesser degree in this report. The cases included in the Index are based on PEN America’s own internal case list, PEN America’s Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) case list, and the 2019 PEN International Case List. Additionally, PEN America draws from press reports; information provided by PEN Centers around the world; reports from the families, lawyers, and friends of those in prison; and data from other international human rights, press freedom, academic freedom, and free expression organizations. The methodology behind the Index is explained in greater detail here.
Alongside the Index, PEN America is launching a new, searchable database of Writers at Risk, containing details of the writers in our 2019 Index along with hundreds of other cases of writers, journalists, artists, and intellectuals under threat around the world. This database offers researchers, rights advocates, and the public a wealth of actionable evidence of ongoing global threats to free expression. By highlighting the threats experienced by a broad range of writers, the Freedom to Write Index and database complement existing datasets that focus on journalists or scholars, helping paint a more holistic picture of attacks on freedom of expression globally, and shining a light on the impact when individual creative voices are silenced.
Controlling the Narrative: Writers & Intellectuals Under Threat
“You can imprison me but you cannot keep me here. Because like all writers, I have magic.”
—Ahmet Altan, in his most recent book, I Will Never See the World Again3
The importance of controlling the public narrative has always been evident to those who seek power, and it is part of what puts writers, academics, and intellectuals at particular risk. Through the written word, these individuals hold the power to imagine, to inspire, to question, to pierce through falsehoods and illuminate universal truths. For any regime that seeks to exert absolute power and to shape a single collective narrative, such individuals pose a grave threat. In examining the cases of writers and intellectuals subject to detention and imprisonment, we see several patterns emerge related to this desire to shape the narrative, control language and history, and silence those who call the dominant narrative into question.
The power of books and writing have always been recognized by oppressive regimes. Consider the Nazis carrying out book burnings to rid society of writings deemed to be “subversive.” Recall that enslaved people in the United States were prohibited from learning to read, since that could give them “dangerous” ideas—including that another reality was possible. And consider today the crackdowns on writers and intellectuals in Russia, Turkey, and the Xinjiang region of China; all countries where despotic rulers are trying desperately to control the narrative, and to ensure their own version of both history and current reality is the one that wins out as “truth.” In each of those countries and many more, governments have done that in part by putting writers and academics behind bars.
Today, we increasingly see disinformation wielded as a weapon of disruption, and the COVID-19 pandemic has spawned a parallel “infodemic” of both accidental misinformation and deliberate disinformation. While this report focuses on writers and intellectuals imprisoned during 2019, the spread of the pandemic has led to new attacks on free expression and on those who have criticized their governments’ response to the crisis. The Chinese government in particular has taken steps to advance its own narrative of a prompt and successful fight against the virus and cracked down on those who have critiqued the government response or questioned the state-sanctioned version of events. Targets have included whistleblower doctors (most notably Dr. Li Wenliang, who died of the virus in February)4 and citizen journalists attempting to document the virus’s spread in China (Chen Qiushi, one such reporter, has not been seen since he was detained on February 6),5 but also writers, academics, and public commentators. Professor Xu Zhangrun was placed under house arrest in early February after he published an essay criticizing President Xi Jinping’s handling of the crisis;6 the writer Fang Fang has faced online abuse and been attacked in state media for her online diary of life in Wuhan during the lockdown;7 and author, academic, and activist Xu Zhiyong has been held incommunicado since mid-February after publishing an essay calling for President Xi to resign and criticizing, among other things, Xi’s efforts to hide the truth of the outbreak.8 The Chinese government even went after Nobel Prize-winning author Mario Vargas Llosa, describing as “irresponsible” a column in the Spanish newspaper El País, in which Vargas Llosa stated that the virus had originated in China and criticized government attempts to silence those who raised the alarm about the outbreak.9 In an interview with The New York Times about her decision to document the lockdown, Fang Fang said, “If authors have any responsibilities in the face of disaster, the greatest of them is to bear witness.”10
Governments do not only seek to control the narrative of current events, of course. They also look to control how history is told. And that often requires thwarting the work of historians whose research undermines efforts at historical revisionism. Take, for example, the efforts of the Russian government under President Vladimir Putin to rewrite and rehabilitate the history of the Soviet era, in particular the crimes of Josef Stalin.11 As part of those efforts, historian Yury Dmitriev, who has worked to uncover and document mass graves from the era of Stalinist purges, has been arrested and charged with sexual misconduct involving children. Dmitriev, head of the Karelia branch of the Russian human rights center Memorial, was first arrested in 2016 and acquitted in 2018, but that acquittal was overturned just two months later, and new charges were brought against him for which he faces up to 20 years in prison. He remains in pre-trial detention, and his attorney worries for his health in the face of COVID-19.12 Such charges have been wielded against others in cases where the government has an interest in silencing the accused,13 raising questions as to whether they are using such radioactive charges to silence historians and ensure that few will come to their defense. Yet prominent writers, historians, and activists have risen to Dmitirev’s defense,14 and the OSCE has expressed concern that Dmitriev’s arrest is “in response to. . .his work as a historian. . .investigating crimes committed during the Stalinist era.”15
In China, there have been similar attempts to silence those who are documenting the country’s contentious past. Lhamjab Borjigin is an ethnic Mongolian writer and scholar who spent decades collecting oral histories of survivors of the violence of the Cultural Revolution in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region (IMAR) for his 2006 book, China’s Cultural Revolution.16 He came under threat recently after a new audio version of the book, which describes torture and other brutality doled out by the Chinese Communist Party against ethnic Mongolians during the Cultural Revolution, went viral among ethnic Mongolians—both in the IMAR and in neighboring Mongolia—on social media. In 2018, Lhamjab was placed under house arrest, and authorities began confiscating copies of his book; in September 2019, he was convicted of “national separatism” and “sabotaging national unity,” after a trial that lasted just three hours and during which Lhamjab said he was denied a lawyer.17 He was sentenced to a one-year suspended prison term and currently remains under a strictly-monitored form of house arrest in which his movements and personal communications are severely restricted, and he must report daily to police.18
Historical memory is a complex and contentious notion in every country, but wrestling meaningfully with difficult questions about the past requires factual historical documentation, open public discussion, and robust academic debate. Writers, academics, and public intellectuals have a critical role to play in such conversations, which is precisely one of the reasons they are under threat.
Language as Subversion
Language is, of course, inextricably connected to narrative, in both the literary and political sense. When governments try to marginalize or silence a population on the basis of their ethnicity, race, or cultural identity, quashing their language is often a key piece of that effort. The very use of a language, therefore, with its connection to individual and collective identity and culture, can be a political act. This is especially true for writers, as keepers and wielders of language.
In countries where certain ethnic or cultural groups are more widely discriminated against or subject to a broader campaign of subjugation or repression, or where language is part of a larger political project, authorities often engage in efforts to silence those writing in the associated language(s), and those who call for the protection of linguistic rights. Since the annexation of Crimea in Ukraine by Russia in 2014, the occupying authorities have made a concerted effort to suppress both the Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian languages in the region, with Russian taking their place.19 In China, we see attempts to limit the use of and target those writing in Tibetan and Uyghur; Tibetan language learning is limited in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR),20 and a systematic attack on the Uyghur language is part of the Chinese Communist Party’s broader assault on Uyghur culture and identity.21 Prominent Uyghur poets, writers, and those contributing to Uyghur-language websites have been targeted for arrest, detention, and prosecution. Tashi Wangchuk, from a predominantly-Tibetan area of China outside the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), who documented his support for Tibetan language rights in a microblog, was detained in 2016 after he appeared in an article and short video feature published by The New York Times in late 2015.22 He was sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “separatism” in 2018, and remains behind bars.23
The Kurdish language is under pressure in Turkey, as part of a broader crackdown on the Kurdish community,24 and in Iran, Zahra Mohammadi—a Kurdish language and literature teacher, head of a cultural association, and linguistic rights activist—was arrested in May 2019 in relation to her work and charged with “national security offenses.”25 Mohammadi spent six months in detention before receiving a conditional release in November.26 In India, tensions around ethno-linguistic rights in a political environment of heightened nationalism have led to increased sensitivities around the use of language. A number of Bengali-language Muslim poets faced charges in the state of Assam in India in 2019, in relation to the publication of a poem that criticized the controversial effort to update the National Register of Citizens in Assam.27 These so-called “Miya” poets have been publicly called out for not writing in Assamese, a particularly potent issue in the midst of a debate about who belongs and who is a “foreigner” in India.28
When the very use of a language is politicized and essentially an act of subversion, that compromises the ability of writers to express themselves in their own language. The added burden of political risk that could be involved in merely writing a poem, essay, or novel can force people into self-censorship or leave them with difficult calculations of risk. This is why the protection of linguistic rights is a critical component of ensuring the freedom to write.
Women comprise a relatively small proportion—around 16 percent globally—of the total number of writers who spent time behind bars in 2019. However, in several countries, namely Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, they make up a much larger proportion of incarcerated writers. Of the 39 women who spent time behind bars in 2019, 24 were held in one of those three countries. 11 of the 39 women were detained or imprisoned specifically in connection with writing and activism on women’s rights. This was particularly common among the women detained or imprisoned in Iran and Saudi Arabia, two countries where extreme restrictions on women’s personal freedoms are wrapped up in the religious and patriarchal narratives of the regimes. The independent voices, the powerful words of these women are themselves a threat to the narrative their governments have set forth. Of the six women behind bars in Iran in 2019, three were singled out for reprisal because of their writing and advocacy in favor of expanding political and legal rights for women and lessening the social restrictions they face in the country. Of the eight women in the 2019 Index detained or imprisoned in Saudi Arabia, six were targeted for their writing and outspoken advocacy to advance women’s rights in the country, and largely as part of a 2018 crackdown on writers, bloggers, academics, and activists who had called for an end to the country’s ban on women driving, which was, perversely, accompanied by a government decision to reverse the ban. That the Saudi government would reform the driving law and simultaneously put those who had called for such reforms in prison made clear their actual motive: to prevent these women’s powerful voices from being heard and to send a clear message to others who might think of raising their voices in dissent.
When governments like those of Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, and Mohamed bin Salman insult, imprison, and attempt to discredit writers and intellectuals, they are inadvertently admitting that those individuals’ work is a direct threat to their regimes’ attempts to control the narrative. And in the process, they make the case for why defense of the freedom to write is so critical. Historians and academics probe theories, question assumptions, document truth, and compile the facts and stories that make up a collective history. And through their ability to imagine, create, and inspire, writers, poets, dramatists, and other creative artists can speak truth to power and provide people with hope, and the chance to envision a different world. This is why they are a threat to any regime that seeks to control the hearts and minds of its people.
In his memoir, entitled I Will Never See the World Again, Turkish novelist and journalist Ahmet Altan, facing a life sentence, wrote from prison of everything that had been taken from him, but also of all that remained his, saying to his captors: “You can imprison me, but you cannot keep me here. Because, like all writers, I have magic. I can pass through your walls with ease.”29 Altan’s life sentence was overturned in July 2019, but charges against him were not dropped, and in November, he received a new sentence of 10.5 years. He was given conditional release, but then re-arrested a week later and remains in prison while the prosecutor appeals the decision to release him.30 His lawyer has noted that at age 70, Altan is at high risk should he acquire COVID-19 while in prison, and has called for his release. While Turkey has started releasing tens of thousands of people from prison in a bid to stop the virus’s spread, Altan and other political prisoners remain behind bars.31
As Altan’s words make clear, storytelling is a form of freedom; so is speaking the truth. Through their words, writers can transcend the bars of prisons, but they should not have to. The 238 writers, academics, and public intellectuals included in PEN America’s 2019 Freedom to Write Index were detained or imprisoned because, through their writing and their work, they shed light on the truth. And in doing so, they threatened the narrative of the powerful. In this moment, when truth is vulnerable, and when the world faces a time of reckoning in which a new future waits to be written, it is imperative that we defend the freedom to write, and work to free those who remain behind bars for daring to exercise that power.
A Concentrated Crackdown
While a total of 34 countries held writers or intellectuals in prison for their free expression during 2019, cases were most concentrated in a small number of states: just five countries—China, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Egypt—account for about 70 percent of the cases in the 2019 Freedom to Write Index. Not surprisingly, there is a high level of correlation between the countries that held a significant number of writers behind bars and countries that score poorly on the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index,32 which measures procedural and criminal justice and the politicization and corruption of the judiciary, suggesting that pliant court systems are a key tool exploited to target writers and intellectuals. The top three violators—China (73 cases), Saudi Arabia (38), and Turkey (30)—held 141 of the 238 writers and public intellectuals counted in the 2019 Index, reflective of broad crackdowns against dissident voices in recent years in each country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Committee to Protect Journalists also found China, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to have the largest numbers of journalists imprisoned as of December 1, 2019.33
The high number of detained or imprisoned writers and intellectuals in China reflects an ongoing crackdown on dissent under President Xi Jinping, but is largely attributable to the Chinese Communist Party’s ramped-up oppression of the country’s Uyghur population. In early 2017, China, which PEN International had already documented as holding the most writers behind bars,34 began to implement “de-extremification” measures that institutionalized the criminalization of Uyghur identity and culture as a matter of purported national security.35 Arrests in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), a mere 1.5 percent of China’s population, accounted for 21 percent of all arrests in China during 2017,36 and the PEN network has documented increasing cases of detained Uyghur writers since then.37 A total of 73 writers and intellectuals were detained or imprisoned in China in 2019, the vast majority of whom were either in mainland China (31) or the XUAR (32); though some were also held in Hong Kong (6), Tibet (3), and Inner Mongolia (1). Among the writers and intellectuals held in detention and prison in China in 2019 were some 34 literary writers, 23 scholars, and 17 poets.
In Xinjiang specifically, scholars, literary writers, publishers, and poets are under considerable threat for sharing or discussing Uyghur culture and language. Many prominent writers, historians, publishers, and poets who disappeared during the initial crackdown in 2017 were finally confirmed to be in detention in 2019, among them Iminjan Seydin, a Uyghur historian and publisher who has since been sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment on purported national security charges.38 Limited public information exists about the situation on the ground in Xinjiang, however, with international journalists facing close monitoring and restrictions on movement, the government completely controlling domestic reporting there, and many people reluctant to speak to the press for fear of detention.39 In the fall of 2019, after internal Chinese Communist Party cables were leaked that revealed details of the detention camps and broader repression in Xinjiang, a coalition of countries called on China to give the UN and other independent international observers “meaningful access” to the region—a call that has so far not been met.40 Given these restrictions, it is a near-certainty that the real number of detained and imprisoned writers and intellectuals in Xinjiang is much higher than independent organizations or media have been able to document.
Saudi Arabia has long been one of the most restrictive countries in the world for human rights and for freedom of expression in particular. But as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has consolidated his power in recent years, the country has seen an even more intense crackdown on dissent. This largely began in mid-2018, with the arrest in May and June of a number of writer-activists who were advocates for women’s rights.41 This was followed by the brutal, state-sanctioned murder of exiled journalist and The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.42 In further waves of arrests in April and November 2019, Saudi authorities detained prominent writers and activists in a series of home raids,43 a move widely viewed as an attempt to further shut down domestic criticism of the Saudi regime and a demonstration of disregard for the international condemnation that followed Khashoggi’s murder.44
Rounding out the worst offenders worldwide are Iran, which held 14 of the writers and intellectuals identified in the 2019 Index, and Egypt, which held 11. In 2013, President Hassan Rouhani assumed office in Iran after campaigning on the promise of liberal reform, including the expansion of individual freedoms and free speech policies. President Rouhani’s government, however, remains notorious for opaque judicial processes, arbitrary detentions, and extreme penalties for writers, including novelists, short story writers, and academics. Iranian writer and activist Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee has been in and out of several prisons, including the notorious Evin prison, since September 2014 when she was first arrested. She was sentenced to six years in prison in 2015 on propaganda charges for an unpublished fictional story concerning the practice of stoning as a criminal punishment.48 Released in April 2019, when she had served over half her sentence, Iraee was rearrested in November 2019.49 In recent years, Iran has also stepped up its arrests of writers of Iranian origin but based overseas. In June 2019, Dr. Fariba Adelkhah, a French-Iranian anthropologist conducting research in Iran, and Dr. Roland Marchal, a French sociologist visiting Dr. Adelkhah, were both arrested and detained on propaganda and national security charges.50 Dr. Marchal was released in a prisoner swap between Iran and France in March 2020, but Dr. Adelkhah remains in poor health at Evin Prison,51 where detainees are subjected to considerable health risks and dangerous conditions. The concern for incarcerated political prisoners in Iran has only intensified with the outbreak of COVID-19 in early 2020. Prominent lawyer, writer, and activist Nasrin Sotoudeh, who was re-arrested in June 2018 and is currently serving a combined 38-year prison sentence on trumped-up national security charges after being convicted in absentia, announced in mid-March that she would begin a hunger strike to advocate for the release of political prisoners while Iran battles COVID-19.51
India stands out as the only relatively open and democratic country to fall among the top 10 countries imprisoning writers and public intellectuals in 2019, with five cases documented (in addition to several dozen cases of writers facing other types of active threats). While India is still rated as “Free” in Freedom House’s annual Freedom in the World report, its numerical scores and relative democracy ranking have declined in recent years, in part due to the worsening situation for free expression.66 Those in prison or detention in 2019 include the poet and leftist intellectual P. Varavara Rao, writer and artist Arun Ferreira, and writer and scholar Vernon Gonsalves, who were all detained in August 2018 alongside a number of other activists in relation to inter-caste violence that broke out during a protest in 2017.67 Notably, many of those arrested had a long history of work on behalf of minority and marginalized groups in India.68 Other Indian writers have been vocal in calling for the release of Rao, Ferreira, and Gonsalves, and with the case continuing to drag on, some 40 prominent writers issued a plea for Rao’s release, given the risks from COVID-19 that the 80-year-old faces in prison.69
24 other countries held between one to three writers or intellectuals in prison in connection with their writing or expression during 2019. Unsurprisingly, repression of free expression tracks strongly with the general level of freedom in a country. In total, just four of the 34 countries with writers imprisoned were rated as “Free” in Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World 2020” report, and only two of those, India and Spain, held more than one writer behind bars during the year;74 the vast majority of countries included in the Index were rated as “Not Free.”75 However, the inclusion of democratic states in the list demonstrates that targeting writers is not solely the purview of highly repressive dictatorships or authoritarian states, but is a tactic employed more broadly to clamp down on prominent voices of dissent.
Writers and public intellectuals held behind bars in 2019 were most commonly detained on the basis of national security-related charges. Of the 238 individuals included in the 2019 Freedom to Write Index, 126, or over half, were prosecuted under such laws. While the specifics vary from country to country, national security laws are often vague and broadly-worded, giving authorities the leeway to apply them liberally. They also often carry grave penalties in the event of a conviction. The Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghur writers and academics, and Turkish President Erdoğan’s campaigns against his political critics demonstrate that “security” is often synonymous with adherence to the government’s policies and narrative.
In Turkey, the state has wielded national security charges with abandon against a wide array of critical voices, a trend that dramatically escalated after the 2016 attempted coup. A striking 30 out of 30 writers and intellectuals in Turkish jails and prisons during 2019 were held on national security charges. Writers and public intellectuals who are critical of President Erdoğan’s leadership and governance; who are claimed to have connections to the Gülenist movement; or sympathize with Kurdish or other ethnic minority concerns are kept in custody on charges of “glorifying terrorism” or participating in a “parallel state.” Given the long history of Kurdish separatism in the southeast of the country, led by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant and political group, writing on Kurdish issues or the conflict itself is frequently conflated with support for or glorification of terrorism. Zehra Doğan, a Turkish writer, artist and journalist, was arrested in July 2016 after painting the city of Nusaybin bombarded by the Turkish military during a period of intense fighting with the PKK; Doğan’s painting, which heavily referenced a photograph of the undisputed destruction in the aftermath of the bombardment, was presented as evidence of her involvement with the PKK.78 She was released in February 2019 after spending 600 days in prison.79
In China, the central importance of state-defined national unity is commonly used against writers and public intellectuals who advocate for political reforms. Legal charges portray these writers and intellectuals as scandalous instigators, treasonous actors, or separatists—rather than citizens engaging in legitimate political debate or criticism. In 2019, over half of the writers and intellectuals who served time in Chinese prisons were detained or imprisoned under national security charges. Chinese authorities even reach beyond their own borders to pursue critical voices, as has been the case with publisher, writer, and bookseller Gui Minhai. In late 2015, Gui, a Swedish citizen based in Hong Kong, disappeared from his vacation home in Thailand and appeared months later in Chinese custody.80 On February 25, 2020, after years in detention or house arrest, forced public confessions, and a lengthy, opaque trial throughout which he had difficulty accessing Swedish consular services, Gui was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and five years’ deprivation of political rights for “illegally providing intelligence overseas,”81 a charge likely levied in retribution for his cooperation with Swedish officials attempting to secure his release.
In addition to the categories of charges described here, at least 53 writers and intellectuals were detained in 2019 under unknown or undisclosed charges. Three countries dominated this category: Saudi Arabia, China (particularly cases in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR)), and Eritrea. Saudi Arabia detained at least 26 individuals without charge, including authors, political commentators, academics, and activists. Such cases not only lack transparency and leave those arrested and their families in a state of distressing limbo—they also smack of a government simply flaunting its disregard for the rule of law and the arbitrariness of its power. In Saudi Arabia, several writers and intellectuals who were detained in the April 2019 wave of arrests had not spoken or written publicly in several years. These included columnist and scholar Redha Al-Boori and writer and scholar Bader Al-Ibrahim. One year later, almost all of those writers remain in detention without charges.95 In China, all those writers and intellectuals who were arbitrarily detained without charge were held in the XUAR. Chimengül Awut, a poet and editor at Kashgar Publishing House, was arrested in 2018, reportedly for editing the novel Golden Shoes by Uyghur writer Halide Isra’il. Authorities have since confirmed her editing as the reason for her detention, but explicit legal charges are undisclosed.96 At least four other writers and public intellectuals involved with Kashgar Publishing House were also in detention during 2019. The eight writers who remain in detention on undisclosed charges in Eritrea were part of the crackdown on writers and journalists that followed the attacks of September 11, 2001.97 These arbitrary detentions enforce ad hoc restrictions on free expression, without opportunity for appeal or legal challenge.
A Growing Range of Tactics Deployed to Silence Writers
In addition to the Freedom to Write Index, which counts those writers and intellectuals imprisoned or detained in 2019, PEN America’s complete Writers at Risk Database contains hundreds of active cases of writers, academics, journalists, and artists facing a wide array of threats around the world.
A number of tactics used to restrict writers’ freedom and silence their writing relate to the legal charges against them, even if an individual is not being held in detention. Often, ongoing legal charges or appeals processes in a spurious case can pose ongoing disruption and potentially be accompanied by restrictions on an individual’s movement (either within or outside a country) or ability to work. The prospect of pending charges alone can serve to induce self-censorship, as a writer in such circumstances may understandably hesitate before returning to penning critical material or voicing their opinions via social media. A number of writers, academics, and activists in Saudi Arabia who were arrested in the crackdown in 2018, including Eman Al-Nafjan and Hatoon Al-Fassi, were released from detention in 2019 but continue to face drawn-out and opaque legal processes.98 As a result, Al-Nafjan remains largely confined to her house, has not been able to fully resume work as a professor, and has not been active either in writing columns or on social media, where she traditionally conducted much of her commentary and activism.
Even in the absence of trial proceedings or pending charges, governments around the world have developed a range of other tactics to try and keep critical voices on a tight leash. A particularly pernicious form of limbo is when an individual has been released from prison or detention, but is subject to some formal type of restriction, for example a suspended sentence, house arrest, travel ban, limitations on work or political activity, or regular and onerous reporting to police. 32 of the writers whose cases are included in the Writers at Risk Database are currently in an uncertain state of “conditional release.” Azerbaijani investigative journalist and translator Khadija Ismayilova was sentenced for embezzlement, tax evasion, and other politically-motivated retaliatory charges in 2015. Despite being released early from prison in May 2016, she has since lived under court-mandated conditions that have subjected her to a travel ban, frozen bank accounts, and ongoing harassment from authorities while on probation, making it challenging for her to continue her work.99 In Ismayilova’s case, a ban on travel was explicitly stated in the terms of her release, while in other cases a ban may not be formal, but can be imposed ad hoc, often when a writer is at the airport preparing to leave the country.
The Egyptian government employs an even more extreme form of conditional release in the cases of some political prisoners, requiring those released from prison to spend 12 hours of each day in police custody. Blogger and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, who was released from prison on probation in March 2019 after serving a reduced five-year sentence for violating Egypt’s draconian anti-protest law, was arbitrarily required as part of his probation to spend 12 hours every night, from 6pm until 6am, at Dokki Police Station. On the morning of September 29, 2019, as he left the station, Abd El Fattah was re-arrested and has been in detention since.100 Such methods are clearly intended to keep those targeted under government control, while also allowing the government to claim the person has been “released,” potentially relieving international pressure. The effect on writers’ and intellectuals’ ability to work, write, advocate, and merely return to a normal life, however, remains dire.
During 2019, the largest concentration of cases of ongoing harassment by state or non-state actors was in India, which accounts for 25 documented cases of “continued harassment” in PEN America’s Writers at Risk Database—more than a third of the number in that category globally. Indian writers and public intellectuals have faced increasing pressure to toe the government’s Hindu nationalist line since the election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014,105 with an intensification of this trend after his re-election in May 2019.106 Authorities have attempted to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national discourse and academia,107 and have weaponized government bureaucracy108 and pro-government media and social media trolls to attack critical writers, intellectuals, journalists and commentators, and activists.109 Increasingly, this harassment has originated from non-state actors as well. In Assam, authors who call themselves Miya poets use their writing to explore their experiences of discrimination and the increased dangers their community of Bengali-origin Muslims is facing, particularly since the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act in December 2019.110 The word “miya” has historically been used as an ethnic slur against Bengali-origin Muslims; although it literally means “gentleman,” it is commonly used in an anti-immigration context. Miya poets have reclaimed the term, but face widespread backlash for writing boldly about their oppression. Abdur Rahim and Forhad Bhuyan have experienced online harassment,111 and eventually, police reports were filed against 10 Miya poets after members of the general public complained that the poets depict Assamese of non-Bengali origin as xenophobic. Under Indian law, Miya poets have every right to express themselves through their writing, but growing Hindu nationalism is emboldening members of the general public to take matters into their own hands. In January 2019, noted novelist Nayantara Sahgal was dis-invited from inaugurating a prestigious Marathi-language literary convening, the Akhil Bharatiya Marathi Sahitya Sammelan, reportedly amid threats from protesters promising to obstruct Sahgal’s speech.112 Although the letter canceling Sahgal’s invitation did not specify reasons, two officials involved in organizing the convening explained that the decision was due primarily to fear of losing key funding from a Minister of State who is a member of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party; one official said the Minister had overtly threatened to withdraw the funding if Sahgal participated.113 While only a handful of writers spent time behind bars in India in 2019, the broader pattern is one of a growing range of intimidatory tactics being deployed to limit free expression, induce self-censorship, and reduce the diversity of voices heard in public discourse.
Threats against writers’ physical safety or lives occur less frequently but are, of course, devastating, and often particularly so because those responsible for such crimes are so rarely held to account. Masterminds and perpetrators seldom face justice, and the severity of these crimes has a widespread chilling effect on other writers, academics, and activists, potentially leading to self-censorship and a broad silencing of voices and ideas.
Cases of disappearances are especially disquieting, as they leave an individual’s family, friends, and followers entirely in the dark. At least 11 writers in PEN America’s database are considered “disappeared,” with seven of those cases occurring in Syria, in the context of that country’s long-running and brutal civil war. Bangladesh has seen a number of temporary disappearances of writers and academics in recent years, with those targeted typically released by security services after several months.
The ultimate silencing of a writer’s voice is murder. Two writers and public commentators included in the Writers at Risk Database were murdered in 2019, under circumstances that led observers to suspect the killings were carried out in retribution for their free expression. In February 2019, Iraqi novelist Alaa Mashzoub, a vocal critic of corruption, foreign interference, and militias, was shot by unknown gunmen while riding his bike home in the city of Karbala. Although official motives remain unknown, some speculated that a recent online post of Mashzoub’s about the late Ayatollah Khomeini, former supreme leader of Iran, may have angered Iran-backed militias in Iraq.114 Mashzoub’s killing was protested by Iraqi writers and intellectuals, and his brother stated, “They killed us by killing Alaa, but we’ll keep him alive through his pen.”115 In July, Allinda Michael, the Ugandan musician and activist known as Ziggy Wine, was kidnapped en route to his recording studio in Kampala. A week later, Michael was found severely injured—reports say he was missing two fingers and his left eye—and he died in the hospital days later.116 Ugandan authorities have claimed that Michael’s family has not cooperated with their investigation, but the family believes the state may have been involved in Michael’s murder.117 Michael was a strong supporter of the musician and politician Bobi Wine, an opposition leader whose creative work is often critical of President Yoweri Museveni. Both killings occurred against a backdrop of additional attacks on free expression in Iraq and Uganda, and seemed clearly intended to frighten others into keeping silent as well. Of course, as Mashzoub’s brother noted, the power of a writer is that their work and their words live on.
The voices of writers, academics, and public intellectuals who challenge authority, introduce new ideas, interrogate assumptions, and unearth truths are a bulwark against efforts to foreclose discourse, suppress expression, and define a single social and political narrative. The power writers and intellectuals wield makes them targets of persecution in many forms. PEN America has documented growing threats to writers globally, including in countries where such dangers were once rare, such as India and Turkey, and in increasingly restrictive authoritarian states such as Egypt, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China. Those who attempt to research and document contentious periods of history, to pen commentary about ethno-linguistic issues in or defend the use of a minority language, or who advocate on behalf of women’s rights in countries where these rights are circumscribed are all too often targeted for reprisals. Detention and imprisonment is the most widespread tactic, with writers vilified as enemies of the state, slapped with legal charges, and often jailed, precisely because of their cultural and intellectual clout and their authentic voices of dissent. The silencing of individual voices reflects a deliberate effort to undermine the intellectual, cultural, and social underpinnings of independent thought, on which free and democratic societies depend.
When the conditions are especially brutal, prison can sometimes thwart a writer’s ability to produce creative work altogether. However, the beauty of words and ideas is that it takes more than bars to hold them. Ukrainian filmmaker and writer Oleg Sentsov wrote a letter that was smuggled from the Russian prison where he was serving a 20-year sentence for his opposition to the Russian occupation of his native Crimea. In it, he described himself as a nail that “will not bend” in the face of tyranny.128 Through his writings from prison and a months-long hunger strike, Sentsov provided an inspirational example of how words and personal courage can transcend the oppression of an autocrat. When his friends decided to turn one of his plays into a film, Numbers, he helped direct it from prison via email.129 After five years behind bars, during which time he undertook a grueling 145-day hunger strike in 2018, Sentsov was released as part of a prisoner swap in September 2019, following a prolonged and wide-ranging international advocacy campaign on his behalf. Now free, he has not hesitated to continue both his political advocacy and his creative work, to use his writing to shine a light on the dangerous cruelties of the Putin regime, and to try to free others still behind bars.130 And in February 2020, he was able to attend the premiere of Numbers at the Berlin Film Festival.131
Sentsov is among a number of writers imprisoned in 2019 who have been freed—some 50 of the 238 writers and intellectuals counted in PEN America’s 2019 Freedom to Write Index. Journalists and writers Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo—who were wrongfully prosecuted in 2018 under Myanmar’s Official Secrets Act following their investigative reporting for Reuters, which uncovered a massacre of Rohingya villagers in Rakhine State—were incarcerated for 17 months before being released as part of a mass presidential amnesty in May 2019, following concerted advocacy on their behalf by a wide range of organizations and advocates from within Myanmar and around the world.132 Wa Lone, author of a number of children’s books, wrote and published another, Jay Jay the Journalist, while in prison.133 Rashad Ramazanov, an Azerbaijani writer, academic, and blogger known for his critiques of the government was released in an amnesty in March 2019 after nearly six years in prison on fabricated and politically-motivated drug possession charges.134 Arrested in May 2013, Ramazanov was sentenced to a nine-year prison term; while in prison, he underwent a hunger strike in late 2018 on behalf of another unjustly detained writer.135
Advocacy campaigns often play a key role in keeping these writers’ and intellectuals’ stories in the news and raising the costs for governments that continue to hold individuals behind bars. This is cause for optimism, that despite the growing efforts to repress the voices of writers and public intellectuals, advocacy efforts on their behalf do bear fruit, and international pressure does work, even on the most recalcitrant of autocrats. And today, as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads globally and takes a particularly devastating toll in prisons and other detention centers, the importance of winning freedom for those imprisoned for their writing or their speech is even more urgent.
Sentsov’s inspiring example, and that of many others, serves as a reminder of the ability and determination of writers and intellectuals to continue speaking truth to power even when the personal and individual costs are incredibly high. But they must not stand alone. It is the responsibility of all those who value the role of literary writers and public intellectuals in a democratic society to raise our own voices to ensure that their freedom to speak and to write is protected.