(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.”)