On World Poetry Day, PEN Highlights Cases of Persecuted Poets Worldwide
On 21 March 2015, while people across the globe celebrate World Poetry Day, PEN will be directing public attention to the imprisonment, murder, and general harassment of poets, writers, and journalists around the world.
We will be focusing on five cases that highlight the threats faced by writers who criticise those in power: Aron Atabek (Kazakhstan), Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami (Qatar), Enoh Meyomesse (Cameroon), Susana Chávez Castillo (Mexico) and Liu Xia (China). These cases are already well-known to PEN members, who have been campaigning on their behalf for years. Sadly, there has been little significant progress made towards justice in any of these cases.
On World Poetry Day 2015, please take action on behalf of Aron Atabek, Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, Enoh Meyomesse, Liu Xia and the murdered writers of Mexico: you can do this in a number of ways. Below, you will find more information about our focus cases and some suggested calls to make to the relevant authorities. We hope that you will also promote these cases on social media and with your national press.
Aron Atabek, Kazakhstan, is a poet, journalist, and social activist. He has written several books of poetry and prose inspired by Tengriist spirituality and was the founder, in 1992, of the monthly newspaper Khak (The Truth). Atabek was awarded the literary “Almas Kylysh” prize in 2004 and the Freedom to Create “imprisoned” prize in 2010.
Atabek has been in prison since 2007 and has spent much of his incarceration in solitary confinement. In December 2012, following the online publication of The Heart of Eurasia, a critique of President Nursultan Nazarbayev’s regime (written in prison by Atabek and smuggled out for publication), the poet was sentenced to spend two years in solitary confinement at a high security prison in Arkalyk.
Atabek’s solitary confinement and the harsh conditions in which he has been held qualify as a cruel and inhuman punishment that violates the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment under international human rights standards and runs contrary to the recommendations made by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. By denying Atabek access to visits from his family and to regular correspondence with them, Kazakhstan is also violating the UN’s Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.
Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, Qatar, is a well-known poet in the Gulf, and is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for “criticizing the ruler” and “inciting the overthrow of the ruling system.” Al-Ajami was a literature student at Cairo University in 2010 when he recited a poem (in his apartment, among friends) in which he criticised the former Amir Sheikh Hamad Al Thani. The poem was in response to a poem by a fellow poet, but one of the students in the apartment recorded al-Ajami and uploaded the reading on YouTube. According to al-Ajami’s lawyer, Dr. Najeeb al-Nauimi, a former justice minister in Qatar, the poem was spoken in a private setting and thus violated no law. Another of al-Ajami’s poems, “Tunisian Jasmine,” which expressed support for the 2011 uprising in Tunisia and criticised other Arab governments, was circulated on the Internet.
Al-Ajami is detained in Doha’s Central Prison, where he has been held in solitary confinement since his arrest. On 23 October 2013, representatives from PEN American Center were prevented from visiting him despite having been told their visit had been approved. For more details read “Qatar: A poet sits in a desert cell for reciting his work at home” by Joanne Leedom Ackerman.
Enoh Meyomesse, Cameroon, is a well-known poet. He was sentenced to seven years in prison in December 2012 for supposed complicity in the theft and illegal sale of gold; he had already spent 13 months in prison. PEN believes the charges to be politically motivated and is calling for his immediate and unconditional release.
According to a recent letter to President Biya written by Meyomesse, his appeal hearing has been postponed 21 times since his case was first referred to a civil court for appeal in April 2013, most recently on February 19, 2014. In April 2013, PEN International wrote to the administrator of Kongengui Prison, where he is currently being held, to express concern at reports that Meyomesse was being prevented from writing in prison in April 2013.
Despite all obstacles, Meyomesse continues to publish his works. In November 2012 Meyomesse self-published a powerful collection of poetry written whilst in detention, Poème carcéral: Poésie du pénitencier de Kondengui (Les Editions de Kamerun, November 2012). PEN Centers have been integral to the dissemination of his most recent works; in late 2013 English PEN published their crowd-sourced translation of Poème Carcéral, while Austrian PEN published a German translation of his poems.
Meyomesse recently featured in the artist Ai Wei Wei’s latest exhibition. He was also the recipient of the 2012 Oxfam Novib/PEN Free Expression Award.
Susana Chávez Castillo, Mexico, a prominent poet and women’s rights advocate, was found murdered in the border town of Ciudad Juárez on January 6, 2011. She had been strangled and had had one of her hands cut off; her body was only identified five days later. Chávez had been highly vocal in calling for justice for the hundreds of women killed in the Juárez area since the early 1990s, both as an activist and through her writings; she took part in numerous poetry readings, which she dedicated to the murdered women. Her poem “Sangre Nuestra” (Our Blood) was written from the perspective of a victim.
Despite a conviction for Chávez’s killing, in the vast majority of murders of writers and journalists, impunity reigns. Mexico remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to exercise one’s right to freedom of expression. At least 67 print and Internet journalists, bloggers, and writers have been murdered in the country since 2004. Very few—if any—of these murders have been satisfactorily resolved. Since then, at least 10 other print journalists have disappeared in Mexico; their fate remains unknown. Few if any of these crimes have been solved.
Liu Xia, China, is a poet, artist, and founding member of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. She has been held in her Beijing apartment without access to phones, Internet, doctors of her choice, or visitors since her husband, imprisoned poet Liu Xiaobo, was named the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010. There are reports that Liu Xia’s mental and physical health are suffering due to her detention.
In January 2014, Liu Xia was rushed to hospital in Beijing after suffering myocardial ischemia (lack of blood flow to the heart). She returned for further tests on February 8, 2014 but was discharged the following day and is said to be in need of specialist medical care. Her phone line was reconnected after her initial hospitalisation to enable her to call for help in case of emergency.
PEN America believes that the ongoing, extra-judicial house arrest of Liu Xia is a form of punishment for the human rights work carried out by her husband, Liu Xiaobo, and is extremely concerned for her physical and psychological integrity.