NEW YORK—Today, more than 120 bestselling authors, journalists, editors, and artists joined PEN America in calling on the Egyptian Parliament and President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi to drop charges against and free Ahmed Naji, a writer sentenced to two years in prison because a sexually explicit scene in his novel The Use of Life allegedly caused a reader “heart palpitations.”

The letter—signed by literary luminaries Robert Caro and Philip Roth, bestselling authors Michael Chabon and Chimamanda Adichie, cultural icons Woody Allen and Stephen Sondheim, and many more—urges Egyptian authorities to release Naji, who will receive the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award this month, and to amend Article 178 of the Egyptian Penal Code under which he was sentenced to comply with the country’s legal protections for artistic and literary freedom.

“Mr. Naji is serving a two-year prison sentence for writing a novel that contains references to sex and drugs,” the letter reads, “subjects so relevant to contemporary life that they are addressed through creative expression worldwide, and clearly fall within Egypt’s constitutional protections for artistic freedom.”

PEN America’s letter, which mobilizes the international literary community behind a campaign begun in February with a letter by 500 Egyptian cultural figures, comes just a week after Egypt’s crackdown on expression further intensified with the arrests of two journalists during a reported raid on the Egyptian Press Syndicate. At the end of 2015, at least 23 journalists were imprisoned in Egypt, making the country one of the world’s worst jailers of media workers. Over the past year, Egyptian authorities have closed cultural centers, raided an art gallery and publishing house, and imposed prison terms on several other artists, including film producer Rana El-Sobky and poet Fatima Naoot.

“Ahmed Naji dared to test his country’s new constitution which expressly protects creative expression. His jail sentence for a crime of the imagination flouts the rule of law and is yet another blow to the dynamic literary and arts scene in Egypt,” said Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of PEN America. “The name Ahmed Naji has become a rallying cry for writers around the world to stand with free-thinking Egyptians who are unwilling to surrender their rights without a fight.”

Naji will be honored at the annual PEN Literary Gala on May 16, 2016, in New York City. His brother Mohamed Naji will accept the award on his behalf. Other awards at the PEN Gala will go to J.K. Rowling, creator of the Harry Potter series for engendering a love of literature among children worldwide; Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha and Lee-Anne Walters for their civic expression to expose the water crisis in Flint, MI; and Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch for his leadership in the fight against censorship.

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PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression at home and abroad. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

Ahmed Naji, 30, is the author of three books and a journalist at the state-funded Akhbar al-Adab literary magazine. He is a frequent contributor to other newspapers and websites, including Al Modon and Al Masry Al Youm, and has been a vocal critic of official corruption under the rule of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. In 2015, Naji was charged with “violating public modesty” after a private citizen complained Naji’s latest novel, previously approved by the Egypt Censorship Board, has caused the reader distress. A trial court found Naji not guilty, but prosecutors appealed to a higher court that in February 2016 delivered a guilty verdict and imposed the maximum sentence of two years in prison.

CONTACT
Sarah Edkins, Deputy Director for Communications: sedkins@pen.org, +1 646 779.4830