(WASHINGTON)–PEN America, the literary and free expression organization, today released a letter to President Biden signed by 44 noted authors and journalists—among them award-winning U.S. and international novelists, playwrights, biographers, and historians—who are urging the President to raise his Administration’s concerns about the human rights situation in Saudi Arabia during his conversations with Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman later this week. The authors, in particular, pointed to Saudi Arabia’s place as the world’s second worst jailer of writers (behind China), and noted attacks on writers, journalists and public intellectuals who are threatened and harassed for expressing their perspectives in their writings and speech.

“Saudi Arabia is notorious for trampling on the right to free expression,” said PEN America’s Washington Director Nadine Farid Johnson. “Today, 29 writers are imprisoned by Saudi officials, and many more face violence or threats of violence and other human rights abuses, merely because they are writing or speaking truths the Saudi regime wants to suppress. President Biden should use this engagement to raise these abuses directly with the Crown Prince and to state publicly that the Saudi regime must put an end to its repressive tactics against those exercising their right to free expression.”

The letter to President Biden stated: “Your discussions with the Crown Prince and other Kingdom officials should feature robust discussion about human rights, free speech, and the rule of law, and include clear acknowledgement that the environment for free expression in Saudi Arabia remains extremely poor.”

Saudi Arabia not only jails writers who criticize the Kingdom, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and their policies that undermine human rights and free speech; it detains them for long periods of time, sometimes indefinitely, subjecting them to lengthy periods of solitary confinement and even torture. Sometimes, they are never charged with an offense. The Kingdom also imposes draconian post-release conditions on some writers who are released from prison, prohibiting them from traveling out of the country, accessing the Internet or earning a living from their writing.

In the letter, the authors noted that even Saudi citizens who leave the country are not safe, and Saudi writers and commentators who live and work abroad are subject to online trolling and threats, surveillance and hacking.

PEN America’s  2021 Freedom to Write Index, published in April 2022, identifies Saudi Arabia as the world’s second worst jailer of writers, second only to China. Twenty-nine writers are in prison because of their work. One of these imprisoned writers is Maha Al-Rafidi Al-Qahtani, who also writes for Al-Watan, a daily newspaper. She was arrested and detained without charge in September 2019 by armed men in a nighttime raid. She was kept in solitary confinement for two months in Sha’ar Prison, and is currently still being held without charge.

Read the full letter and signatories here.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. 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. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057