“Because Writers Speak Their Minds”–2

(As part of International PEN’s celebration of the 50th anniversary of its Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) which works around the world on behalf of writers who are imprisoned, threatened and killed because of their work, the former chairs of the WiPC have been asked for brief personal memories of their years. For me those years were 1993-1997.)

My years as Chair of International PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee began in a way with Salman Rushdie and ended, or at least were framed, by Ken Saro Wiwa. Both were global cases that mobilized writers and others around the world to protest the edicts of governments that tried to stifle dissent and imagination by killing the writer. Rushdie survived; Saro Wiwa did not.

I was elected Chair at the International PEN Congress in Santiago de Compostela, a medieval city in the hills of Northern Spain. The surprise guest at the Congress was Salman Rushdie. At the time Rushdie made few appearances and traveled clandestinely with extensive security, though when he arrived at the hotel, he confronted hundreds of people gathered on the plaza who’d come not to see him, but Julio Iglesias, the Spanish singer, who happened to arrive at the same time.

Rushdie addressed the PEN Congress under tight security. Though the fatwa calling on Muslims around the world to kill Rushdie had been issued in 1989, his case still loomed and defined that period as PEN and the freedom of expression community came to terms with the threat of radical Islam to free expression.

A few days later a young woman in Bangladesh offended militant Muslims and local mullahs with her novel criticizing Muslims attacking Hindus in communal violence in India. Death threats and fatwas were issued against Taslima Nasrin by those extremists. As community pressure built, the Bangladesh government temporarily withdrew her passport and took out an arrest warrant against her for “deliberate and malicious intention of hurting religious sentiments….” At one point it was reported that the snake charmers in Dhaka threatened to release their snakes into the city if she wasn’t prosecuted.

The case of Taslima Nasrin took many turns, including a clandestine meeting in a hotel restaurant in London where the WiPC director and I went to see a young man who’d claimed on the phone to be Taslima’s brother. We had a spotter at a table near the door in case of trouble, and MI5, or perhaps it was MI6, we thought were watching nearby. The man turned out in fact to be Taslima’s brother, and he was trying to get her safely out of the country. PEN worked with her lawyer to secure her safe exit from Bangladesh in the dark of night, and she was flown to Sweden where Swedish PEN helped find her refuge.

Ken Saro Wiwa, the popular Nigerian writer, opposed the brutal regime of Sani Abacha and championed the rights of the Ogoni people in an area of Nigeria where oil companies produced and polluted the landscape and shared few proceeds with the local population. Ken was imprisoned, along with others, charged with the murder of four Ogoni leaders, sentenced to death and given no right of appeal.

PEN and the freedom of expression community mobilized, challenging the charges and the sentence and holding meetings in Parliaments with national leaders, staging readings and mounting vigils around the world, particularly in the countries of the British Commonwealth and in the U.S.

During that period I moved from London to Washington, DC. where each day I called to get an appointment with the Nigerian Ambassador. Finally, one morning when I was actually in New York, I got a call saying the Ambassador would meet with me. I quickly got a plane back to DC and along the way called the Freedom to Write director at PEN American Center and asked her to arrange to have another writer meet me at the embassy. The writer didn’t need to do or say anything; I just wanted there to be two of us to add weight to our delegation. As it turned out, the Ambassador was suddenly bid to the U.N. in New York so we crossed in the skies, but in Washington I met with the second and third diplomats at the embassy, arguing for Ken Saro Wiwa’s life. Midway through the meeting, a fellow writer arrived and sat like an anchor on the other end of the sofa. For all the arguments presented and all the nodding of heads and taking of notes, I feared at the end of the meeting that the decision to execute Ken Saro Wiwa had already been made.

On November 10, 1995 representatives of human rights organizations—PEN, Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and others—were outside the Nigerian Embassy in Washington to protest and seek another meeting when the word came out that Ken Saro Wiwa had been hanged that morning in Port Harcourt. The shock of his execution was felt around the world, not only in the freedom of expression community but with the many governments which had also been involved in the protest.

Most colleagues I’ve worked with over the years can tell where they were when the fatwa was issued against Salman Rushdie and when they heard the news of the execution of Ken Saro Wiwa. These two cases were seminal, changing the landscape of the work that was done. Rushdie’s foreshadowed a threat which knew no national boundaries, and Ken Saro Wiwa’s highlighted our limitations.

During those years there were hundreds of cases in China, Turkey, Russia, Algeria, Burundi, Korea, Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Peru, Mexico, Guatemala, Syria, Ethiopia, Egypt, Rwanda,– cases in more than 60 countries–all important, many of whom were released, some of whom were killed and a few of whom still remain in prison.
“If the face of global fear used to be a face across a border, it is now the face of a neighbor once tolerated,” I reported during that period. “In Bosnia, Kosovo, Albania, Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, Turkey, Greece, India, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Bangladesh, Georgia, Nigeria, Rwanda, Tajikistan, Egypt religious and/or ethnic strife has set portions of the population against each other.”

At the PEN Congress in Prague in 1994 my report noted, “Five years ago, the March 1989 Writers in Prison case book listed among our main cases Vaclav Havel and a dozen other Czech writers. Today with the sea change in global politics, PEN has no cases in the Czech Republic. The Writers in Prison work often rides the tides of larger political forces, but in that turbulence, the individual writers connect to each other through the work of the Writers in Prison Committee, through letters to the threatened or imprisoned writers, letters to governments on the writer’s behalf, through acts as simple as a German PEN member sending toothpaste and a toothbrush to an imprisoned South Korean writer or a Norwegian PEN member finding an optician to send free glasses to a recently released Cuban writer, or to acts as complex as Swedish PEN assisting in the safe departure and relocation of our Bangladesh colleague.”

(PEN’s WiPC was formed in 1960, the year before Amnesty was founded. Further information on the work and cases during this half a century when human rights became an important part of the global dialogue can be found at “Because Writers Speak Their Minds: 50 Years of Defending Freedom of Expression.”)


  1. Richard Bray on March 31, 2010 at 11:05 am

    Thank you, Joanne, for your memories of this period of the WiPC. In particular, I was reminded (as if it were yesterday) of the call we received from Rushdie’s publisher apologizing for having to cancel the next day’s PEN West-sponsored reception with the author due to the initial threats (while barely understanding what was actually happening over the background barking of the bomb-sniffing dogs at Viking’s offices). And our meeting with Ken’s son during the world-wide campaign to free him, ever so hopeful of his release.
    I think it would be great if you could someday expand on these memories. I believe it would be an important benefit to those who participated then and now and in the future.
    Warm regards,

  2. Chiara Macconi on April 3, 2010 at 1:02 pm

    Dear Joanne
    an article like this nurtures our work and provides feeling of belonging to everyone in PEN. Sometimes we dream of getting away from everyday routine for something more worthwhile: you have done it and your experience is shared with us.

  3. Mary Kay Zuravleff on April 6, 2010 at 9:11 am

    Those of us writing in our basements are grateful for your important work defending writers!

  4. Lucina Kathmann on April 11, 2010 at 7:38 pm

    Reading Joanne Leedom-Ackerman’s reflections as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the International PEN Writers in Prison Committee set off many reflections of my own, some shared with Joanne and some others.
    I got active in PEN in 1986 and my first PEN Congress was in Canada in 1989. San Miguel PEN had existed since 1979, but it was really nothing but a sign over the door of a private writers’ school, there were no PEN activities. What happened to change that was that Celia Wakefield happened to be in New York in 1986 and it occurred to her that, as a member of San Miguel PEN, she would have the right to go to the PEN Congress there. She went to the Writers in Prison Committee meeting and that opened up a new world. She came home and her ideas to take public stands and adopt prisoners were enthusiastically embraced by the membership.
    My husband Charles Kuschinski and I responded immediately to Celia’s announcement in the paper. We were among many who joined the newly active San Miguel PEN center. We called a meeting and wrote to London to suggest someone we might adopt. They suggested Ariel Hidalgo, then in a Cuban prison.
    In the first years we adopted quite a few prisoners, among them the blind Turkish playwright/lawyer Esber Yagmurdereli. We found out about him from Mehmet Cetin, another Turkish prisoner we had adopted. Mehmet said that another man in the same prison had a more important case than his own. We asked and, at that point, PEN wasn’t ready to clear Esber for adoption because Amnesty International had not finished a long investigation into his case. We started working for him anyway, even though he wasn’t formally our adoptee. A blind PEN member, Deborah Kent Stein, started a letter campaign in Braille. We worked on his behalf 15 years before he was finally released from prison (except for a brief release after which he was re-imprisoned). In one period we kept going to the office of the Turkish consul in Chicago, sometimes with Deborah. When he was finally released, I went to Turkey to meet Esber, and I am still a friend of his whole family.
    When the RAN network started, we were thrilled. The fax had been invented and we hoped we could respond so rapidly that we could help prevent torture. There were few centers on the network that wrote in Spanish, so I took with especial seriousness my job to appeal in Latin America. I remember my hands shaking as I faxed Fujimori’s office in Peru, knowing that probably nobody else was telling them that a journalist in a remote province had been taken away by an army officer right as he was in the office of the constabulary denouncing this very officer. There wasn’t a moment to spare. Days later I heard the colleague had been released. Whew! I no longer remember his name. Absurdly, I remember the name of the army officer who was trying to kill him.
    Ken Saro-Wiwa’s case was important to all of us, and for me, Ken’s death coincided with the death of my husband Charlie. The two events are mixed up in my mind, so I remember them together every day.
    Right after these events, in 1996, I became Chair of the International PEN Women Writers Committee, and we added to this committee’s previous work for Nawal Al-Saadawi and Taslima Nasrin, the cases of Nadire Mater, in Turkey and Martha Beatriz Roque, in Cuba, among many others. Some of these cases had embedded gender elements, and it was very helpful to have a women’s focus.
    I still work on WiPC cases every day. Though I continue to respond to cases everywhere, these days I have my hands full with cases in Mexico. The most recent RAN features not one but a group of murdered and missing journalists. The deaths are coming so fast that the excellent office staff cannot keep up. It’s a very difficult moment to take time out to celebrate 50 years of crucial and important work, as, perhaps more than ever, there is work to be done.
    -Lucina Kathmann

  5. Willie Mathern on September 15, 2010 at 4:26 pm

    I found your blog through a friends blog and I am really glad he had the link to your blog..I am going to bookmark this site and tweet out to my friends as well.

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