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[VIRTUAL] Day of the Imprisoned Writer: Writers as Champions of the Right to Free Expression

Since November 15, 1981, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer has been an opportunity for the international PEN network of over 100 centers around the world to draw particular attention to writers at risk and threats to free expression globally. By detaining writers, governments worldwide deprive them of their individual right to free speech, while also robbing the broader public of access to their innovative and influential voices of dissent, criticism, creativity, and conscience. In the 2020 Freedom to Write Index, PEN America found that last year, at least 273 writers and public intellectuals worldwide were jailed for their free expression, a number that increased from 238 writers in 2019. This year, marking the 40-year anniversary of the Day of the Imprisoned Writer, PEN America is holding a virtual panel discussion with special remarks from noted writers in honor of imprisoned and at-risk writers around the world. On this day, we remember their imprisonment and forced absence with an empty chair.

Join us on November 15 at 11:00 am ET for a panel discussion with formerly imprisoned writers, family members, and advocates on the importance of international solidarity, with special remarks celebrating writers as champions of free expression. The panel discussion will feature opening remarks by writer, editor, and PEN America Trustee Marie Arana and closing remarks by author Azar Nafisi.


Join the community of international writers defending the freedom to write by speaking about cases of writers at risk online and reciting, reposting, and remembering their powerful words. Tag @penamerica and use the hashtag #FreedomToWrite.



Marie Arana headshotMarie Arana is a Peruvian-American author, senior advisor to two U.S. Librarians of Congress, the inaugural literary director of the Library of Congress, The John W. Kluge Center’s former Chair in Countries and Cultures of the South, and a writer-at-large for The Washington Post. For many years, she was editor-in-chief of The Washington Post’s literary section, Book World. She is the editor of The Writing Life: How Writers Think and Work, a collection of Washington Post essays on the writer’s craft. Arana is the author of several acclaimed books of fiction and nonfiction including American ChicaCellophaneBolívar: American Liberator; and Silver, Sword, and Stone. In 2021, Arana was honored with the Library of Congress Award for Superior Service. 

Azar Nafisi

Azar Nafisi is best known as the author of the national bestseller Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books, as well as for her other books, That Other World: Nabokov and the Puzzle of Exile, The Republic of Imagination: America in Three Books, and Things I’ve Been Silent About. She has taught and held multiple fellowships at several universities including Johns Hopkins’ School of Advanced International Studies, Georgetown University, and Oxford University. Her work often highlights literature’s incredible ability to connect individuals and elicit empathy. Most recently, Dr. Nafisi has been working on her forthcoming book, Read Dangerously: The Subversive Power of Literature During Troubled Times which will be published in March 2022.


Ma Thida headshotMa Thida is a Burmese writer, human rights activist, and surgeon who has published over nine books in both Burmese and English. A trained physician who formerly volunteered at a charity clinic during the ’80s, Thida began writing to share her observations of political issues such as poverty. She soon gained a reputation as a progressive writer and leading intellectual in Myanmar, making her a target of the then-military government. An assistant to Aung San Suu Kyi’s campaign during the 1990 general election, Thida’s experience in the campaign inspired her first book The Sunflower, which was banned in the early 1990s. In 1993, she was arrested and sentenced to 20 years in Insein Prison on the charges of “endangering public peace, having contact with illegal organizations, and distributing unlawful literature.” In 1996, she was the recipient of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award, but she was not released until 1999—after serving six years in harsh conditions—on humanitarian grounds due in part to her declining health, international pressure, and advocacy on the part of human rights organizations like Amnesty International and the PEN network.

Ahmed Naji headshotAhmed Naji is an Egyptian novelist and author of four books, including The Use of Life (2014) and Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison (2020). In early 2016, Naji was imprisoned on charges of “violating public modesty” and was sentenced to two years in prison after a man complained that excerpts from The Use of Life containing sexual content caused him to experience heart palpitations, sickness, and a drop in blood pressure. Naji spent 10 months in prison until May 2017 when he was conditionally released, though subject to a travel ban pending appeal of his case. A year later, the court overturned his original sentence, replaced prison time with a fine, and lifted Naji’s travel restrictions. In July 2018, he fled Egypt and now lives in the United States. Naji has nevertheless continued to write: He was appointed a City of Asylum fellow at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute in 2019 and is celebrating the recent publication of his book, Rotten Evidence (2020). Naji is the 2016 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honoree.

Jewher Ilham headshotJewher Ilham is the eldest daughter of imprisoned Uyghur writer and academic Ilham Tohti. Tohti has been imprisoned in China since 2014, serving a life sentence on charges of “separatism” related to his writing on Uyghur Online, a website he co-founded to promote cultural and political understanding between minority Uyghurs and Han Chinese. Chinese authorities have held Tohti incommunicado since 2017, prohibiting Ilham from visiting or speaking with her father. She lives in self-exile in the United States and advocates tirelessly for her father’s release on the international stage. Ilham has shared her father’s story before the European Parliament, accepting the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought from the European Parliament in Strasbourg in December 2019, and a number of prestigious awards from multiple nongovernmental human rights organizations. Tohti is the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write honoree.

Karin Deutsch Karlekar headshotKarin Deutsch Karlekar is the director of PEN America’s Free Expression at Risk Programs, leading PEN America’s assistance to individuals at risk as a result of their expression and an ongoing partnership with PEN Myanmar. She has two decades of experience in global free expression, press freedom, and digital rights issues, as well as advocacy and assistance work on behalf of writers, bloggers, and journalists. In addition to acting as an expert spokesperson on press freedom issues at conferences, meetings, and in media appearances, Dr. Karlekar has developed index methodologies and conducted training sessions on press freedom, internet freedom, freedom of expression, and monitoring dangerous speech; authored a number of special reports and academic papers; and conducted research, assessment, and advocacy missions to Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka.


Reza Khandan, Baktash Abtin, and Keyvan Bajan, imprisoned in Iran
Baktash Abtin, Keyvan Bajan, and Reza Khandan Mahabadi are celebrated writers, free expression advocates, and board members of the Iranian Writers Association (IWA). Abtin is a poet and filmmaker; Bajan is a novelist and journalist; and Khandan Mahabadi is a writer, literary critic, and popular culture researcher. The three are serving a collective 15 years and 6 months in prison on spurious national security and propaganda charges; their detention stems both from their public profiles as writers, as well as their work and advocacy against state censorship. All three have suffered cruel medical neglect since their sentences began in September 2020, with devastating consequences for their health. Award-winning creatives and literary luminaries—including Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster, and Behrouz Boochani—have signed onto PEN America’s petition calling for their immediate and unconditional release. Abtin, Bajan, and Khandan Mahabadi are the 2021 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honorees.

Yury Dmitriev, detained in Russia
Yury Dmitriev is a Russian historian and head of the Karelian branch of Memorial, one of Russia’s best known human rights organizations. His work has uncovered the burial places and mass graves of thousands of victims of Stalin-era mass executions, and he has authored several books providing details about people who were killed under Stalin’s “Great Purge” of 1936–1938. Dmitriev’s work to uncover the truth behind these horrific atrocities have made him a target of the Putin regime, which has worked to rehabilitate the Soviet era and whitewash Stalin-era atrocities. Dmitriev was first detained on December 13, 2016, and is currently serving a 13-year prison sentence for charges related to child pornography, charges that human rights organizations argue have been levied against him specifically to discredit Dmitriev’s work.

Mehmet Osman Kavala, detained in Turkey
Mehmet Osman Kavala is a Turkish publisher, cultural rights activist, and philanthropist known for his support for numerous rights-oriented civil society organizations, including his own arts organization, Anadolu Kültür. Kavala is also the founder of several publishing houses, including İletişim Yayınları and Ana Publishing. Detained since October 2017, Kavala has faced a relentless series of national security-related charges, levied against him in retaliation for his promotion of free expression and championship of cross-cultural dialogue in Turkey. Authorities have even sought to reverse Kavala’s strides in promoting diverse literary culture in Turkey, demanding the dissolution of Anadolu Kültür. Despite a European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) decision calling for Kavala’s release due to insufficient evidence for his detention—a decision with which Turkish authorities are legally bound to comply—Turkish authorities continue to unjustly detain Kavala in Silivri prison. The relentless campaign against Kavala illustrates the declining rule of law and closing space for free expression in Turkey.

Pham Doan Trang, detained in Vietnam
Pham Doan Trang is an author, blogger, and journalist whose books and online writings in support of human rights and democratic principles have long made her a direct target of the Vietnamese state. A prolific writer, Trang has published several books about democracy; co-founded Luật Khoa, an online magazine on law and human rights; and serves as an editor for The Vietnamese, an independent news website covering political issues. In October 2020, Trang was arrested and charged with “making, storing, disseminating, or propagandizing information, materials, and products that aim to oppose the State.” She was held incommunicado for over a year, until last month when she was finally able to communicate with her lawyer. She was set to stand trial in early November, but the date was postponed; she now remains in detention. The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has ruled her detention as arbitrary and joined international calls for her release from jail.

Dawit Isaak, detained in Eritrea
Dawit has been held in prison for over two decades without being charged or brought to trial by the Eritrean government. Recognized as one of the longest-detained journalists, Dawit Isaak has been held incommunicado without trial since 2001. He is a playwright, writer, and co-owner of Setit, an independent newspaper published from 1997 until its forcible closure in 2001. Dawit Isaak was arrested on September 23, 2001, during a crackdown on independent press throughout Eritrea; authorities arrested several writers and journalists and additionally shut down independent media outlets including Tsigenay, Meqaleh, Keste Debena, and Zemen. In September 2020, credible sources indicated to the United Nations that Dawit is still alive; and this year, the UN has renewed urgent calls for his release from the infamous Eiraeiro prison.

Xu Zhiyong, detained in China
Xu Zhiyong is a Chinese writer, legal scholar, and civil rights activist who has been an integral member of China’s most important civil rights movements over the last 20 years. Alongside his civil rights advocacy, he is well known for his series of online essays concerning contemporary social issues in China. On February 15, 2020, Xu was detained after writing multiple open letters and online commentaries criticizing the Chinese government, including its response to the COVID-19 outbreak in the country. Xu has been formally arrested under the charge of “subversion of state power” and faces life in prison if convicted. Alongside Xu, his partner Li Qiaochu—a labor and women’s rights activist—was also detained in February 2020 and was held incommunicado by authorities for calling for Xu’s release. Xu Zhiyong is the 2020 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honoree.

Vladyslav Yesypenko, detained in Crimea
Vladislav Yesypenko is a Ukrainian freelance journalist who contributed to the Krym.Realii Project, an affiliate of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), for four years. He was detained on March 10 in the Russian-occupied Crimea by the Federal Security Service (FSB) of the Russian Federation after he laid flowers at a monument as tribute to the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko. Yesypenko faces politically-motivated charges for possession and transport of explosives. While in detention, he has reportedly been subjected to illegal interrogation methods, which he has described as torturous. Yesypenko is a dual Russian-Ukrainian citizen and a former resident of Crimea, from where he fled after Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014.

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