Spring and Release

I saw the first daffodils today…and forsythia…and the buds on cherry blossom trees. Spring with its regalia is starting to blossom, at least here in Washington, DC.

In the freedom of expression community renewal is heralded this week by the release of writers from prison in a number of countries, including Qatar, China and Azerbaijan. While the writers were unjustly imprisoned in the first place and many hundreds still languish in jails because they have offended governing powers, the releases of Qatar poet Mohammed al-Ajami after almost five years in prison and Chinese writers Rao Wenwei and Wang Xiaolu and half a dozen writers in Azerbaijan are cause for quiet celebration.

Qatar: In the fall of 2013 another PEN colleague and I stood outside the sprawling prison in the desert around Doha where Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami was held in solitary confinement. After meetings with Justice Ministry officials, we’d understood we would be allowed into the prison for a visit. However, after five hours waiting in the desert wind, we were denied access. Al-Ajami’s family, who were visiting inside, told us later that Al-Ajami knew we were there and took some heart in that. Al-Ajami was imprisoned for “insulting the Emir” in two poems which he read at a private apartment in Cairo but which were surreptitiously recorded and posted by a student on YouTube. One of the poems “Tunisian Jasmine” expressed support for the uprising in Tunisia that launched the Arab Spring and challenged rulers throughout the region. Al-Ajami, who is the father of four, was originally sentenced to life in prison, reduced to 15 years.

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PEN centers around the world, including American, Austrian, English and German PEN worked on his behalf as did Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and other organizations championing freedom of expression. Many voices protested, many hands tried to push open the prison door. Just last week at a Washington dinner I noted Al-Ajami’s imprisonment to an individual headed to Qatar for high level meetings. Those who deal with Qatar are always surprised that this Emirate which boasts education and partnerships with Western universities would imprison a poet for his poems. It is not a comfortable outcome that it is a pardon and not an apology by the Emir which brought about Al-Ajami’s release, but it is still cause to be glad.

China: There are more than 40 writers in prison in China, including Nobel Laureate Liu Xiaobo. Recently two—Rao Wenwei and Wang Xiaolu—were released early. Rao Wenwei is a writer charged with “inciting subversion of the state power” for articles published on the internet. His 12-year sentence was cut short by four years with his release. Wang Xiaolu was arrested for a story on the stock market crash on suspicion of “fabricating and disseminating false information on the trading of securities and futures.” Through the efforts of PEN centers, particularly the Independent Chinese PEN Center, the cases and situation of writers in prison in China stay at the forefront of protests.

Azerbaijan: Half a dozen writers are being released in Azerbaijan this month. The Baku Court of Appeals is expected to release journalist Rauf Mirkadirov today, according to Sports for Rights coalition which includes PEN, commuting his six-year prison sentence to a five-year suspended sentence. President Aliyev has signed a pardon decree that includes 14 political prisoners, including the writers Parviz Hashimli (journalist), Abdul Abilov (blogger), Hilal Mammadov (journalist), Omar Mamedov (blogger) and Tofiq Yaqublu (journalist). The European Court of Human Rights also issued a judgment in Rasul Jafarov’s case finding violations of Rasul’s rights to liberty and security. Rasul is expected to be released shortly. Dozens of political prisoners, however, remain in Azerbaijani jails, including journalists Khadija Ismayilova and Seymur Hezi.

(*For background on any of these cases or the many remaining political prisoners in Azerbaijan, here’s the full list with case details: http://www.helpsetthemfree.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/The-list-of-Political-Prisoners-in-Azerbaijan_December-2015.pdf)

Qatar: A Poet in a Desert Cell

(This piece also appears on GlobalPost.)

DOHA, QATAR — We stood outside the guard house in the desert wind on the outskirts of the city. Doha Central Prison rose on the horizon of a barren, rock-strewn landscape, electric wires cutting across a cloudless sky. We had been told we had permission to visit Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami, whose 15-year sentence for two poems had been confirmed the previous day by the high court.

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For five hours we stood, paced, sat in broken chairs, negotiating on mobile phones with the Attorney General’s office. The prison authorities had not received the request for our visit. The guards changed twice while we waited, guards from different nationalities as are most of the workers in Qatar. They were friendly, shared fresh oranges with us as the hours passed, but had no authority to help.

Inside the prison members of al-Ajami’s family were visiting him and knew we were out there. Al-Ajami knew we were there and wanted to see us.  No one had gotten this far, the family later told us. But in the end we were denied.

For the last two years Mohammed al-Ajami has been in solitary confinement with limited access to visitors. A known poet in the Gulf and the father of four, al-Ajami was a literature student at Cairo University in 2010 when he recited a poem in his apartment among friends, a poem that allegedly criticized the Emir. The poem was in response to a poem by a fellow poet, but one of the students in the apartment recorded al-Ajami and uploaded the reading on YouTube. According to al-Ajami’s lawyer Dr. Najeeb al-Nauimi, a former Justice Minister in Qatar, the poem was spoken in a private setting and violated no law.  Another of al-Ajami’s poems “Jasmine” was circulated on the internet and expressed support for the uprising in Tunisia and criticized all the Arab regimes.

Sixteen months later, al-Ajami was summoned in Doha and arrested, eventually charged  with “encouraging an attempt to overthrow the existing regime,” “claiming that the Emir misused and not abided by the Qatar Constitution” and “criticizing the Crown Prince,” who has subsequently become the Emir. Al-Ajami was sentenced to life imprisonment after a trial held in secret where the Investigating Judge, a non-Qatari, was also the Chief Judge. [The Emir appoints all judges on recommendation from the Supreme Judicial Council, 75% of whom are foreign nationals, dependent on residency permits.] Later on appeal, Al-Ajami’s sentence was reduced to 15 years.

As representatives of PEN International and PEN American Center we—two American women—had come to Doha to argue for the release of Mohammed Al-Ajami, but by the time our planes landed, the court had already upheld the 15-year sentence. All judicial appeals were now exhausted.

A country of two million people, but with only 250,000 citizens, Qatar is one of the, if not the, richest nation per capita. During his reign the former Emir set a course of modernization and brought reform to the government, brought institutions of higher education to the kingdom and developed programs in the arts and set up a Center on Media Freedom. The West looks to Qatar as a leader in the region. The imprisonment of a poet on an offense of lese majeste has confounded many though in an interview, the Prime Solicitor General insisted the charges were not about freedom of speech but were brought because the poet publicly offended people and urged the overthrow of the government.

In Qatar itself the case has received little coverage. The news media is owned by the government and the Emir. Those familiar with the ways of the kingdom say the only recourse now for al-Ajami is a pardon by the Emir. However, if an apology is necessary for that pardon, a standoff may occur. According to al-Ajami’s lawyer, the poet has questioned why he should apologize for having spent the last two years in solitary confinement for sharing a poem in a private setting.  His lawyer notes that Al-Ajami has had his career disrupted; he has missed seeing his family for two years, including missing the birth of his youngest child.

As I flew out of Qatar, I stared at the desert below now filled with sky scrapers and modern museums rising from the land. I considered the math. Over 90% of the jobs are occupied by men and women of other countries who have no rights of citizenship and can be deported. Only one in ten people are citizens; half of these are women, who have limited rights; over a quarter are children and the elderly. The country is run by a very small minority. I questioned whether the math was on the side of history.

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Extensive gas reserves developed in the 1990’s have given Qatar its huge income and given the country a seat at the leadership tables of the region and the globe. But if the country puts its poets in prison, one must wonder. On the other hand, if the new Emir, just 33 years old, educated in Britain, pardons poet al-Ajami unconditionally as PEN urges, then perhaps the curve of history will extend outwards, at least for a while.

[Mohammed al-Aljami is an honorary member of PEN American Center. PEN’s representatives in Doha were Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Vice President of PEN International and Trustee of PEN American Center, and Sarah Hoffman, Freedom to Write Coordinator for PEN American Center.]


To sign a letter urging a pardon for Mohammed al-Ajami, click here.

 

China from the 22nd Floor

On June 4 China will face the 19th anniversary of the killing of citizens occupying Tiananmen Square. Nineteen years ago as president of PEN USA, I remember well sorting through dozens of unfamiliar Chinese names as we sought to untangle what writers had been arrested. Today there are at least 42 writers imprisoned in China.

I wake up 22 stories in the air. Most of Hong Kong is in the air with thousands of high rises shooting into the sky. I’m in a cubicle—two small beds pressed against each wall, a tiny shelf between, a TV mounted on the wall at the foot of one bed. At the head of the bed is a large window so the room is airy and looks out on other windows in the sky.
I wake in the middle of the night because of jet lag and then again early in the morning before the sun rises. I turn on the TV whose screen flashes the financial news of Hong Kong—the major world indices, Hong Kong currency exchange rates, global gold prices, Hong Kong stock market prices, statistics on which the financial world relies, accompanied by jazz and elevator music. The only news channel on this hotel TV is the Chinese Broadcasting Company from the mainland; it broadcasts the mainland government’s view of the news.

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OLYMPIC RELAY– A POEM ON THE MOVE

One of the more creative and moving responses to the Olympics in China this year is a poem relay, initiated by writers and members of International PEN. The poem June, was written by Shi Tao, who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for sending to pro democracy websites a government directive for Chinese media to downplay the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests.

You may recall in 2004 Shi Tao was identified when Yahoo! turned over his email account to the authorities. Charged with “illegally providing state secrets to foreign entities,” Shi Tao now faces the next decade in prison. His poem June is his memorial of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

June
By Shi Tao
My whole life
Will never get past “June”
June, when my heart died
When my poetry died
When my lover
Died in romance’s pool of blood
June, the scorching sun burns open my skin
Revealing the true nature of my wound
June, the fish swims out of the blood-red sea
Toward another place to hibernate
June, the earth shifts, the rivers fall silent
Piled up letters unable to be delivered to the dead.

(translated by Chip Rolley)

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