New York City, November 9, 2009—On the eve of Barack Obama’s first state visit to China, PEN American Center has sent a letter urging the president to intervene on behalf of the more than 40 writers imprisoned in that country because of their work. Noting the global importance of the visit and the complexity of the issues confronting both nations, PEN’s letter laments the fact that “in China, some of those most engaged in envisioning China’s future, and most committed to engaging their fellow citizens in questions that matter, are currently in prison.”

The letter, signed by PEN President K. Anthony Appiah and Executive Director Steven L. Isenberg on behalf of the organization’s 3,400 professional writer members, was delivered Friday morning. It cites in particular the cases of renowned activist writer Liu Xiaobo and four other jailed writers who belong to the Independent Chinese PEN Center (ICPC)—two of whom are reportedly gravely ill—and attaches a list of a total of 43 writers currently behind bars in China.

“In our experience, finding writers in prison is a warning sign not only of the state of fundamental liberties in a country but also of the health, character, and vitality of the ideas in play and of the ability of citizens to act on these ideas,” PEN notes. “Letting the question of freedom of expression rest in silence would cast a dark shadow over the necessary hope that courage, creativity, and candor can bring change,” the letter continues.

The Independent Chinese PEN Center, whose members are carrying out on-the-ground advocacy work in China despite constant pressure from authorities, and PEN American Center are both centers of International PEN, the worldwide association of writers dedicated to promoting literature and protecting freedom of expression. In September, representatives of the two PEN centers visited Capitol Hill to build support for H.Con.Res. 151, which calls for the release of Liu Xiaobo. The resolution was passed by the House of Representatives on a nearly unanimous vote on October 1.

A former president and board member of ICPC, Liu Xiaobo is one of the main organizers of Charter 08, an open letter calling for political and human rights reforms that has been signed by more than 10,000 citizens throughout China. Mr. Liu was detained on December 8, 2008, on the eve of the document’s publication. He has since been charged with “inciting subversion of state power” and could face up to 15 years in prison.

PEN urges President Obama not to be persuaded “by those who would argue that pressing for the release of writers is somehow counterproductive or inappropriate to the occasion,” insisting instead that his personal intervention “will give hope and strength not only to our PEN colleagues and other writers and journalists in prison in China, but to all who share our belief that freedom of expression is both a sign of strength and a human right that cannot be compromised.”

PEN American Center is the largest of the 145 centers of International PEN, the world’s oldest human rights organization and the oldest international literary organization. The Freedom to Write Program of PEN American Center, which works to protect the freedom of the written word wherever it is imperiled, has been working to end China’s imprisonment, harassment, and surveillance of writers and journalists and curtail Internet censorship and other restrictions on the freedom to write in that country.

Sarah Hoffman, (212) 334-1660 ext. 111