(NEW YORK)— PEN America called on Algerian authorities today to explain the arrest on Sunday of writer Lazhari Labter, or release him immediately.

“The arrest of Lazhari Labter signals a growing threat against all writers in Algeria,” said Veronica Tien, Writers at Risk manager in the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center at PEN America. “The authorities have so far not provided any reason for his arrest, and we are concerned that he has been arrested because of his writing about Algerian history and social movements. We are monitoring developments, and we urge the authorities to either explain the reasons for his arrest or release him immediately.”

According to Labter’s son, plainclothes officers arrested Labter around 6:30 pm on November 20 at his home in Algiers. The officers had reportedly obtained a summons, but Labter’s son, who publicly announced the arrest, was not aware of its contents. Labter has been held at the central police station in Algiers, and he requires medication for his glaucoma which can cause blindness if not administered. His family visited him in custody on November 21. The day before his arrest, Labter participated in a cultural event celebrating poet Abdallah Ben Kerriou at the National Library in Algiers.

Lazhari Labter’s arrest appears to be part of a growing trend in Algeria threatening writers and public intellectuals with criminal prosecution and, in some cases, detention for their free expression. Over 200 people have been jailed in relation to the Hirak, the 2019 mass protests for political reform in Algeria. In 2019, poet Mohamed Tajadit was arrested for reciting his poetry at protests, and he has been detained multiple times since. Writer and Berber cultural figure Abdennour Abdesselam was detained in September 2021 and acquitted this month, having been accused of “belonging to a terrorist organization.” In June 2022, journalist Ihsane El-Kadi was sentenced to six months for writing an opinion article arguing for the inclusion of the Islamic-conservative movement Rachad in the Hirak; he is waiting on a decision following his appeal against the sentence.

Lazhari Labter, 70, is a poet, author, editor, and former journalist from Laghouat, Algeria. He has published dozens of books of poetry, fiction, and history including on the extrajudicial killings of Algerian journalists during the 1990s and on Algerian resistance in Laghouat to French colonization in the mid-1800s. Labter is also known for writing the “Les 18 Commandements du marcheur pacifiste et civilisé,” which urged non-violence during the Hirak. Labter has also served as president of the Professional Book Union (SPL), worked with the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), and is a founding member of the National Union of Journalists (SNJ).

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