Jailed Saudi author, murdered Gambian publisher to receive 2005 PEN Award
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
New York, NY, April 4, 2005—PEN American Center today named Ali Al-Domaini, a leading Saudi literary figure who is one of three prominent intellectuals currently imprisoned for criticizing the pace and reach of human rights reforms in Saudi Arabia, and Deyda Hydara, a newspaper publisher and press freedom champion who was gunned down in December 2004 for challenging increasingly restrictive press laws in the Gambia, as recipients of its 2005 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards. The awards, which honor international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression, will be presented at PEN’s Annual Gala on April 20, 2005 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
Distinguished writer, historian, and PEN Trustee Barbara Goldsmith underwrites the two awards. Candidates are nominated by International PEN and any of its 141 constituent PEN Centers around the world and screened by PEN American Center and an Advisory Board comprising some of the most distinguished experts in the field. The Advisory Board for the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards includes Carroll Bogert, Communications Director of Human Rights Watch; Ann Cooper, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists; Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation; Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, International Secretary of International PEN; and Aryeh Neier, President of the Open Society Institute.
Ali Al-Domaini is a prominent writer whose works include three collections of poetry and a novel. On March 15, 2004, he and eleven other leading Saudi intellectuals were arrested for criticizing the newly-established National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR) and for planning to set up their own human rights organization.
The official approval of the National Commission on Human Rights, the kingdom’s first human rights watchdog, followed a year in which the government announced that country’s first municipal elections and political activism visibly increased. In 2003, groups of citizens submitted petitions to the Crown Prince criticizing the pace of reforms, calling attention to discrimination against Saudi Arabia’s Shi’a minority, advocating the establishment of a constitutional monarchy, and calling for greater rights for women. But the detentions appear to have sent a chill through civil society. As the U.S. State Department noted in its 2004 Country Report on Human Rights Practices, “after the March arrest of the reformers, there were no further petitions.”
Shortly after the arrests, a Ministry of the Interior official reportedly announced that the twelve jailed for criticizing the NCHR were suspected of issuing “statements which do not serve the unity of the country and the cohesion of society… based on Islamic religion.” Eight of the detainees were subsequently released, but Al-Domaini and two other leading intellectuals remained in prison and were charged, reportedly after refusing to sign a document renouncing their political activism. Al-Domaini is accused by the authorities of threatening national unity, doubting the independence of the Saudi judiciary, organizing meetings and justifying violence, among other charges.
The trial of Ali Al-Domaini, which is believed to be the first public political trial in Saudi history, opened on August 9, 2004 at an Islamic court in Riyadh. The proceedings were reportedly adjourned in early October 2004 because the three defendants refused to answer questions in a closed hearing. With no date scheduled for the resumption of the trail, Al-Domaini remains in detention, and was not allowed to see his dying father, who passed away in October.
On November 9, 2004, the attorney representing Dr. Matrook Al-Faleh, one of Ali Al-Domaini’s co-defendants, was arrested for making a public petition to Crown Prince Abdullah demanding a fair trial for Al Faleh, Abdallah Al-Hamed, and Ali Al-Domaini.
On December 16, 2004, journalist and newspaper publisher Deyda Hydara was shot in the head and chest by unidentified gunmen. He died instantly. The shooting occurred two days after the Gambian National Assembly passed a new round of repressive media legislation that imposed mandatory prison terms for any published work judged to be “seditious” or “libelous” and included prison terms of at least six months for first time infractions and three years for repeat offenders. The bill also increased the scope of what might be deemed libelous. Hydara and other independent journalists had publicly opposed the law and Hydara had published an editorial denouncing it the day before he was killed.
Hydara began his career in journalism in 1974, when Agence France-Presse hired him as a translator and then as a local correspondent. In 1991 he co-founded The Point, a tabloid that appears three times a week, with his friend of 35 years, Pap Saine. When The Point first appeared, it was the only newspaper of its kind, offering independent news and powerful editorials voicing opposition to successive regimes in the Gambia. As the senior independent journalist in the Gambia, he also served as a mentor for many of Gambia’s young reporters.
Hydara’s murder comes amid an alarming crackdown by Gambian authorities on the independent press. In July 2002 the government passed legislation requiring journalists and media organizations to register with a media commission for one-year renewable licenses. In September 2003, Hydara and three other independent journalists filed a lawsuit challenging the law in a case that is still pending before the Supreme Court of the Gambia. Since then, a group with links to the ruling party known as the Green Boys has issued numerous threats against the co-plaintiffs in the suit and a number of independent journalists, and several have suffered harassment, physical assaults, and arson attacks.
In February 2005, Gambian authorities arrested a Lebanese businessman in connection with the killing of Deyda Hydara, but colleagues continue to call for an investigation of the Green Boys and the many recent attacks on independent journalists. Meanwhile, the murder of Deyda Hydara has cast a long shadow over the independent press in the Gambia, and a number of journalists have reportedly fled the country.
Deyda Hydara was working to establish a new PEN center in the Gambia at the time he was murdered.
In announcing the awards today in New York, Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems noted the important role that writers are playing in protecting essential rights and building civil societies in countries around the world – and the tremendous sacrifice their efforts often entail. “The eyes of the world are on the Middle East now, and on encouraging signs that opportunities are expanding for citizens to express their views and participate in political activiteies in several countries in the region. These developments owe a great deal to individuals like Ali Al-Domaini, intellectual leaders who have openly and peacefully advocated reform at considerable personal risk. The fact that Ali Al-Domaini remains in jail over a year after his arrest is an indication that the struggle to ensure essential rights including freedom of expression may still be in its early stages.”
“At the same time, the assassination of Deyda Hydara in the Gambia reminds us that the drive to build strong civil societies in which a free exchange of ideas is valued and protected continues out of the limelight of international attention as well, and that for our colleagues in such places conditions can be even more perilous. Deyda Hydara was one of a small group of incredibly brave newspaper publishers who have refused to go quietly into the noose of increasingly draconion press laws in the Gambia. He paid with his life. Now the cause of press freedom his country includes bringing his killers to justice.”
This is the 19th year that the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards have honored international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression. The awards are an extension of PEN’s year-round advocacy on behalf of the more than 1,150 writers and journalists who are currently threatened or in prison. Thirty-seven women and men have received the award since 1987; 27 of the 29 honorees who were in prison at the time they were honored were subsequently released.
Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660, ext. 105, firstname.lastname@example.org