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Interview: International PEN Marks Day Of The Imprisoned Writer

International PEN -- the worldwide association of writers -- marks the Day of the Imprisoned Writer this time each year. Its aim is to recognize and support writers who resist repression of their basic human right to freedom of expression. While International PEN campaigns on behalf of hundreds of authors all year round, this November 15 the group is highlighting the cases of five authors in five countries, representing five geographical regions. The countries are Cameroon, Iran, China, Russia, and Mexico. RFE/RL correspondent Bruce Pannier spoke to Sara Wyatt, director of the writers in prison committee at International PEN, about the campaign.

RFE/RL: Iran is one of the countries that has an author on your priority list. Is Iran a particularly noteworthy abuser of writers' rights?

Sara Wyatt: The rights and prison committee of International PEN will be 50 years old next year, and I would say that during most of this time PEN has been concerned about writers in Iran, be it those detained under the Shah or post revolution.
I would say that during most of its 50 years, International PEN has been concerned about writers in Iran.

And today there are at least eight writers and journalists in prison and many more are on trial or on bail, others have been conditionally released on health and humanitarian grounds. Sometimes they've been in this state of limbo for many, many years with the threat of being re-imprisoned if they once again speak out or commit the original so-called crimes.

RFE/RL: Could you tell us more about the Iranian writer you are focusing on this November?

Wyatt: One of the five cases that we're looking at this year is that of Maziar Bahari, an Iranian writer who was among the 100 who were arrested in June this year for their involvement in the demonstrations, protesting the outcome of the presidential election. He's relatively lucky because he was actually freed last month on an enormous bail of 300,000 pounds and has been allowed to leave the country pending trial to be present at the birth of his child.
The situation in Russia is, quite frankly, appalling. In the last 12 months...there have been seven writers and journalists murdered in Russia.

But others have not been so lucky; and there have been a series of unfair trials in recent weeks, some of which have resulted in huge sentences, among them is the Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh, who got 12 years in prison. We're deeply concerned about that.

RFE/RL: And could you tell us about the Russian author you are highlighting this year and something about the climate for writers and journalists in Russia today?

Wyatt: The situation in Russia is, quite frankly, appalling. In the last 12 months since we last commemorated writers under attack in 2008, there have been seven writers and journalists murdered in Russia, which is an appalling statistic -- the highest number of the total 35 cases that we've been monitoring.

Natalya Estemirova was one of the most appalling incidents. She was a human rights defender, she was also a writer and journalist covering human rights abuses in Chechnya. She was abducted in July this year. and her body was found soon after badly treated -- she'd been executed. She'd been a critic of the Chechen President [Ramzan] Kadyrov. He had actually on a number of occasions been threatening to her and so fingers are being pointed at his complicity in it.

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