Acclaimed US authors including EL Doctorow, Don DeLillo and Edward Albee gathered on the steps of the New York Public Library on New Year’s Eve to protest against the imprisonment of Chinese writer and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo.

The authors called on China to release Liu, who was given an 11-year prison sentence on Christmas Day for “inciting subversion of state power” with his writing. “We want to express and explain our outrage, to commit ourselves to working for Liu’s release, and to urge all those in this country and around the world who care about free expression to join us,” said Kwame Anthony Appiah, author and president of PEN’s US branch.

The assembled writers stood in the snow to read aloud from the passages of Liu’s writing that were cited by the court in Beijing when condemning him to prison, as well as from poems he wrote to his wife during a previous three-year term of “re-education through labour” during the 1990s, calling his sentencing “shameful”.

Liu is the co-author of the Charter 08 campaign for political and human rights reform, in which he writes that “we should end the practice of viewing words as crimes”. A member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, he was arrested last December before the Charter was made public, and has been detained for the last year.

The New York rally, staged by the writers’ organisation PEN’s US centre, saw DeLillo read from Liu’s poem “Longing to Escape”, dedicated to his wife Xia: “a cat closes in behind / you, I want to shoo him away / as he turns his head, extends / a sharp claw toward me / deep within his blue eyes / there seems to be a prison”. Doctorow read from the poem “One Letter”, which opens: “one letter is enough / for me to transcend and face / you to speak”.

“We are proud to stand here in solidarity with our fellow writer, Liu Xiaobo, and with his family, and we call again for his release,” said Appiah. “And to him, we say: old friend, we will not forget you, we will not rest until you are free.”

PEN America later delivered a letter on behalf of its 3,400 writer members to the Permanent Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the United Nations, calling on Chinese president Hu Jintao to “to undo this egregious injustice and free Liu Xiaobo immediately”.