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PEN Day Of The Imprisoned Writer: Jailed Voices That Must Not Be Silenced

Iranian women's rights activist Shiva Nazar Ahari
Iranian women's rights activist Shiva Nazar Ahari

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"When your heart trembles for the rights of another human, that is when you begin to slip, that is when the interrogations begin.... When you find faith in people and believe in humanity and nothing else, that is when you commit your first crime."

Jailed Iranian journalist, activist, and blogger Shiva Nazar Ahari, 28, wrote these words in a letter to a fellow prisoner. In September, Ahari began serving a four-year prison sentence on charges of "waging war against God" for her involvement in the 2009 protests against President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's reelection.

She has been jailed repeatedly since she was 18, and in 2010 a court sentenced her to 74 lashes and six years in prison, although that sentence was reduced four years on appeal.

Ahari is just one of hundreds of jailed writers and journalists around the world being remembered on November 15, the day the London-based nongovernmental organization PEN International has designated the Day of the Imprisoned Writer.

"The Day of the Imprisoned Writer is an international day where PEN members have traditionally campaigned to raise the plight of imprisoned writers around the world," Cathy McCann, a researcher for Asia and the Middle East for PEN in London, says. "I believe this is our 31st year of doing this campaign on this day. It is, I think, the biggest day in the PEN campaign calendar for most centers."

PEN centers from Sweden to South Africa, from Malawi to Quebec will be holding events to mark the day, many of them featuring readings from the works of jailed writers.

Although it is a global event, PEN this year is focusing attention on a few countries where there are particular concerns, McCann says.

"This year we are focusing on Iran, the Philippines, Mexico, Turkey, and Ethiopia," McCann says. "Obviously those countries are countries that we have longstanding concerns about."

However, the PEN case list for the first half of 2012, includes 156 sentenced writers in prison and another 132 on trial or under investigation. Many more have been harassed, beaten, or killed.

Iranian journalist Ehsan Mehrabi in a photo he provided from Evin prison
Iranian journalist Ehsan Mehrabi in a photo he provided from Evin prison

In July, Ethiopian blogger Eskinder Nega was sentenced to 18 years in prison on questionable terrorism charges. PEN and other supporters believe he was jailed for his writing.

In a July 2011 article, Nega wrote: "We affirm our commitment to peacefully serve the causes of truth, justice, and democracy with our writings. We will not be intimidated. Democracy is humanity's common destiny.... And after a long journey, Ethiopia's encounter with destiny is right around the corner. We are almost there. We shall be free!"

At the PEN center in South Africa, the events marking the Day of the Imprisoned Writer this year will conclude with a performance of Bob Dylan's 1960s anthem, "Chimes Of Freedom":

Tolling for the searching ones on their speechless, seeking trail,
For the lonesome-hearted lovers with too personal a tale,
An' for each unharmful, gentle soul misplaced inside a jail,
An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

Robert Coalson

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