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[WEBINAR] The Freedom to Write Index: Tracking Jailed Writers and Public Intellectuals Around the World

An online event hosted by PEN America

When they are able to express themselves freely, writers and public intellectuals can be influential voices that bear witness to inhumanity, unleash empathy, spark the imagination, and accelerate social progress. Literature can nurture individual inquiry, challenge orthodoxies in ways both subtle and overt, and enable citizens in repressive societies to see forward to an alternative future. Authoritarian leaders know this, which is why it should come as no surprise that oppressors turn on those with the creative capacity to offer a vision of a better world.

Join PEN America to discuss the inaugural Freedom to Write Index, a novel resource that tracks writers and public intellectuals held in prison or detention around the world. 

PEN America staff will be joined by Jewher Ilham, daughter of imprisoned Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti; Lina Al-Hathloul, sister of imprisoned Saudi writer and women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul; and Egyptian author Ahmed Naji, who served 10 months in prison in 2016 in connection to his novel, The Use of Life.

PEN America is deeply grateful to the John Templeton Foundation for its generous support of the Freedom to Write Index.


Introductory Remarks

Summer LopezSummer Lopez has served as PEN America’s senior director of Free Expression Programs since November, 2017. She has more than 15 years experience in the fields of human rights, democracy, and freedom of expression. She previously worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), including serving as the deputy director of the Office of Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance at the USAID Mission in Zimbabwe and at USAID headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she focused on the Middle East and Asia in the Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance. Lopez also previously served as the vice president of operations at The AjA Project, a nonprofit organization that provides media-based programs for refugee, displaced, and immigrant youth in the United States and internationally. She holds a BA in English and American literature and language from Harvard University and a master’s in public affairs from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.


Lina Al Hathloul

Lina Al-Hathloul is the sister of Saudi writer-activist and online commentator Loujain Al-Hathloul, well-known for her campaign against the driving ban in Saudi Arabia. On May 15, 2018, as the Saudi government prepared to lift the driving ban, a group of armed men raided Loujain Al-Hathloul’s home and arrested her. Al-Hathloul has since been detained and subject to sexual abuse and horrific torture pending trial, which has been repeatedly delayed over the last two years. Lina Al-Hathloul has joined numerous human rights organizations to mobilize against her sister’s arbitrary detention, including Women’s March Global, the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), and PEN America. Last year, she spoke before members of Congress in Washington, D.C. and at the Women in the World summit in New York City to campaign for Loujain Al-Hathloul’s release. Loujain Al-Hathloul is the 2019 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write honoree.

Jewher Ilham

Jewher 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 non-governmental human rights organizations. Tohti is the 2014 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write honoree.

Karin Deutsch Karlekar

Karin Deutsch Karlekar is the director of PEN America’s Free Expression At Risk Programs, and leads PEN America’s assistance to individuals at risk as a result of their expression and an ongoing partnership with PEN Myanmar. She has almost 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. Prior to joining PEN America, she served from 2001–15 as director of Freedom House’s Freedom of the Press project, coordinating the production of a flagship annual report that tracked trends in global media freedom. While at Freedom House, Karlekar also served as a South Asia analyst; developed index methodologies; conducted research, assessment, and advocacy missions; and authored a number of academic papers and special reports. She holds a Ph.D. in Indian history from Cambridge University and a BA from Vassar College.

Ahmed NajiAhmed 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 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.


Jonathan FriedmanJonathan Friedman is the program director for Campus Free Speech at PEN America, where he oversees PEN America’s advocacy, analysis, and outreach in the national debate around free speech and inclusion in higher education. He served as lead author on PEN America’s 2019 report, Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America, and on the production of its digital Campus Free Speech Guide. Friedman holds a Ph.D. in international education from New York University, and he has previously received awards for his teaching, research, and leadership.

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