Led by English PEN, we have joined over 30 arts, media, and human rights organisations in calling on the UK govt to open the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme, which was announced over four months ago. Read our letter to the Home Secretary here: https://www.englishpen.org/posts/news/afghanistan-cultural-organisations-urge-uk-government-to-open-acrs/
Here is a quote from Enoh Meyomesse (Cameroon) about the effect of receiving letters from PEN members while he was in prison:
“Your letters set me free. Your postcards broke my chains.”
On 15th November, to mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer (and the first anniversary of the re-launch of Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann), sixteen members joined us via Zoom to talk about selected writers and write letters and cards of support. Our featured writers were: Nedim Turfent (Turkey), Ilhan Sami Çomak (Turkey), Dawit Isaak (Eritrea), Amanuel Asrat (Eritea), Nasrin Sotoudeh (Iran), Pham Doan Trang (Vietnam) and Paola Ugaz (Peru).
This was a wonderfully friendly, engaged session where we thought about and talked about PEN’s principles of supporting writers who have been imprisoned because of their work, their ideas, their courage and their belief in freedom of expression.
With thanks to English PEN, PEN Norway and the Free the Poet Campaign and PEN International for their support.
English PEN’s ongoing PENWrites letter-writing campaign, which Irish PEN supports, now includes Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace, an award-winning academic, activist, and blogger from Bahrain. He has spent the last decade in prison, where he is serving a life-sentence for his role in the 2011 pro-democracy protests.
In July 2021, Dr Al-Singace launched a hunger strike to protest his ill-treatment in prison, in particular the confiscation of a manuscript he had been working on for years. Amid mounting concerns for his health and well-being, we continue to call for his immediate and unconditional release. We hope you will join us in sending a message of support and solidarity.
Write to Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace at https://www.englishpen.org/pen-writes/penwrites-dr-abduljalil-al-singace/
If you write to Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace as a member of Irish PEN, please say so in your letter. International support is important.
As PEN Centres we wish to highlight the case of renowned Indian poet, Varavara Rao, to all those who care about the defense of freedom of expression for writers. We call for all charges to be dropped against Rao, and hope that you will join our campaign to ensure his freedom.
Varavara Rao is an 82-year-old poet and activist who was arrested in 2018 along with several other activists in India on charges of inciting violence under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The charges relate to Elgaar Parishad, a non-profit event held on 31 December 2017 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Koregaon Bhima. The controversial Bhima Koregaon case, and the arrests and incarcerations associated with it, shocked us and many other human rights organisations around the world.
Since his 2018 arrest, Rao has been held in appalling conditions. The notorious Taloja Central Prison where he has been held took no account of his age and fragility. In July 2020, he tested positive for Covid-19 and was moved to JJ Hospital in Mumbai. Here, his visiting relatives reportedly found him unattended and delirious on a urine-soaked bed.
On 22 February 2021, Rao was released from custody on an interim bail agreement, after the Bombay High Court conceded that ‘…the hospital at the Taloja Central Prison is not adequately equipped to take care of the undertrial, given his advanced age and various health conditions. Sending the undertrial back to Taloja Central Prison would certainly endanger his life.’
Our relief when this decision was reached by the Bombay High Court is now tempered with grave fears that he will be returned to jail when this six-month bail period ends. We also remain deeply concerned over the bail conditions imposed on Rao, which include prohibiting him from speaking with media and restricting his movements to the Mumbai area, hundreds of kilometres from his hometown of Telangana.
Sharing her fears for Rao’s future, Scottish PEN Trustee and Writers at Risk Committee member Bashabi Fraser said:
‘We do not want Varavara Rao to be returned to jail to meet the same fate as the humanitarian social worker, 84-year-old Father Stan Swamy, an innocent man who was incarcerated as a political prisoner and died in jail in early July 2021. Father Swamy had been held without trial charged on the same Elgaar Parishad case as the much respected 82-year-old poet activist, Varavara Rao. Varavara Rao has been wrongly accused. We demand that all fabricated charges are dropped against Rao and he is allowed to live as a free man with dignity’.
A Marxist poet and activist, Rao is an important figure in Telugu literature, and has published over 15 poetry collections since the 1960s. He is a founder of the Virasam – the Revolutionary Writers Association, and ran Srujana (Creation), a monthly journal focusing on modern Telugu literature, for over 25 years. His prison diary – Captive Imagination – was published in English in 2010. Rao is well known for his campaigning work to secure land and labour rights for Indian workers, and PEN Centres have been advocating for his freedom since his arrest in 2018. A poetry anthology dedicated to Rao, entitled Freedom Raga, was published last year and an anthology of his work in English is forthcoming from Penguin India this autumn.
June Considine, co-founder of the Freedom to Write Campaign (Ireland) and Board member of Irish PEN, made the following call to Indian authorities:
‘Now in his eighty-second year, Rao’s reputation as a poet has garnered him an international audience. He is widely respected for his principles and defense of human rights. We hope that the Indian authorities will afford him those same democratic liberties and take account of his distinguished career, his great age and declining health. This humanitarian gesture will reflect the true value of a functioning democracy’
We, the undersigned PEN Centres, call for the immediate release of Varavara Rao and fellow Elgaar Parishad activists and for the release of all prisoners being held for exercising their right to peaceful freedom of expression.
- Scottish PEN
- Irish PEN
- PEN International
- English PEN
- PEN Delhi
To support our call to action please consider the following:
- Write to representatives of the government of India in your country expressing your concern.
- Write to the Honorable Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
- Write to your country’s Foreign Ministry about the case.
- Inform local and online news and media outlets about the case.
- Read Varavara Rao’s work and share it with your friends. Consider holding an event in support of Varavara Rao around the time of his bail hearing.
- Join your local PEN Centre, inform yourself about this and other cases, get involved.
Egyptian poet Galal el Behairy has been added to the list of cases being promoted by English PEN’s PENWrites Campaign, which we are, in turn, supporting.
Please remember, if you write letters for this campaign, to say that you are a member of Irish PEN.
On 28th April, Poetry Day Ireland, a team of Board members tweeted extracts from work by poets from Myanmar at regular intervals throughout the day.
Since our last newsletter we have issued statements in response to the shocking rendition of journalist and blogger Roman Protasevich and student Sofia Sapega in Belarus and sent messages of support to our colleagues in PEN Belarus.
“Irish PEN/PEN n hÉireann utterly condemns the actions of the Belarus Administration in forcing the diversion of a Ryanair flight for the purpose of extracting and holding a journalist and his companion.”
We also issued a statement against the online harrassment of journalists on Social Media, quoted by Martina Devlin in her Irish Independent column on Saturday 15th May: “Irish PEN unreservedly condemns online attacks on journalists, which have real and damaging effects on writer’s ability to work and speak freely. Such attacks represent a direct threat to freedoms of thought and speech and by extension, to democracy itself.”
In this context, we’d like to draw your attention to Julie Posetti’s UNESCO document on violence/harassment against female journalists: The Chilling
and to The English PEN paper on Online Harms:
On 20th May 2021, we joined 49 other PEN Centres in a statement calling for the release of Osman Kavala .
Our co-operation with PEN Centres in England, Scotland and Wales continues, with exchanges of news and ideas and some co-operative actions, along with plans for future joint projects.
Our Freedom to Write sub-committee has joined the TURKEY ACTION GROUP. A representative attended the first meeting of this group which was both deeply interesting, as we learned of the work of other Centres, and alarming as we heard of the further erosion of rights in Turkey.
Members of the Board attended the Writers for Peace conference via Zoom, 9-11 June.
The aims of Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann are: to promote literature in and about Ireland both nationally and internationally; to defend worldwide the right of writers to responsible freedom of expression as defined in the PEN Charter; and to foster international understanding through the appreciation of literature.
In 2019, the Freedom to Write Campaign was asked to take over running Irish PEN by the outgoing committee. We agreed to set up a steering committee to set up a new organization, Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann, with new structures but still adhering to the principles of PEN International and the PEN Charter, on which the Freedom to Write Campaign was based.
Over the intervening months we have set up a Company Limited by Guarantee, a prerequisite for applying for Charitable Status. We have continued to be active in support of writers who are at risk or in prison because of their writing and we have fostered links with other writers’ associations in Ireland such as the Irish Writers’ Union, Aontas na Scríbhneoirí Gaeilge and the Letters With Wings project. We are also in close and continuing contact with our colleagues in PEN Centres in England, Scotland and Wales. A Newsletter will go out to current Members in November with more details.
(The new Irish PEN/PEN na hÉireann was launched at an online Zoom event to mark the Day of the Imprisoned Writer: Sunday, 15th November at 7:00 pm)