“Your warm sentences is always best sympathy for me. I inform my father about your letters. We honor you and your friends.”

This e-mail came to me from Teheran and was written by Ruhollah Eshkevari, son of  writer and cleric Hojatoleslam Hassan Eshkevari, one of my cases. As a case minder for the Freedom to Write Committee, I try to obtain the release or ameliorate the conditions of writers persecuted by repressive regimes.

I enter a bizarre world where sentences are handed down for charges that are grossly exaggerated or blatantly false. Eshkevari’s case began quite innocently when he attended a Berlin Conference with the approval of the Iranian government. There, in responding  to a  question from the floor, he said that “the veiling of women … was not required by Islam.”

When he returned to Tehran these words were grounds for a death sentence. He was accused and found guilty of  “declaring war on God …insulting the holy religion of Islam …being corrupt on earth …and apostasy.” The death sentence was commuted, but not a lengthy sentence in the notorious Evin prison.

I wrote to countless officials in Teheran and Washington, and when I next heard from Ruhollah, he was to be allowed to visit  his father. He asked me to send a letter which he would try to bring into the prison.. The  letter was a pleasure to  write, because Eshkevari had just been named an Honorary Member of PEN American Center and I congratulated him. Ruhollah later wrote me how much this meant to his father.

Over the years, most of the writers awarded Honorary Membership have been released. Eshkevari was, too.

The Uighur historian Tohti Tunyaz is another of my most unusual cases. (The Uighurs are an oppressed minority living in China near the border of Mongolia.) While doing library research, Tunyaz came upon a 50-year-old historical document, and after obtaining the consent of  the official Chinese librarian, copied a few pages to work on at home. This normally harmless action resulted in his arrest for “illegally acquiring state secrets” and writing a subversive book. Although this book never existed, the charge was “inciting national disunity,” and the sentence was 11 years.

I really thought I could help to bring about his release, particularly as he was made a PEN Honorary Member and won the Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. After writing to a long list of uninterested officials, I reached the Human Rights Officer of the State Department in Beijing and managed to have Tunyaz put onto the Department’s list of human rights violations. From then on, he was included in official appeals. One success came when his son was given permission to see him in prison, his first visitor in four years.

Then I made contact with Senator Chuck Hagel, head of the Congressional-Executive  Commission on China, and Tunyaz’ case was raised in negotiations. Unfortunately, the Chinese government has not yet relented. 

And then there is the tragic case of the prominent Uzbek journalist Muhammad Bekjanov (also made an Honorary Member), sentenced to15 years for taking part in a series of explosions in Tashkent. Later, the chief witness for the prosecution revealed that he had given evidence under torture. This did not lead to Bekjanov’s release, but merely reduction of his sentence to 13 years.

In the course of correspondence with the Helsinki Commission, I learned that his family has been given sanctuary in Seattle, and have frequently been in contact with his daughter, Natalya. Her e-mails are a chronicle of  being on a roller coaster of hope and despair. On one occasion, she and her mother and sister were allowed to speak with Bekjanov on the telephone for 5 minutes, which she described to me as being “like a miracle.” Then came an e-mail with the exciting news that he was about to be released. This was followed by e-mails disclosing that each release date had passed. As of now, Bekjanov remains in prison, and it is extremely difficult to get any  information out of Uzbekistan. 

Natalya writes that her father asked her to tell me that he appreciates the efforts being made for him.
“The notion that he is not forgotten helps him to stay still and make a great plans for the future.”