Jailed Algerian Newspaper Publisher, Banned Turkmen Novelist To Receive 2006 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards

New York, NY, March 29, 2006—PEN American Center today named Mohammed Benchicou, a newspaper publisher already in prison and facing 50 additional sentences for his newspaper’s independent reporting, and Rakhim Esenov, a novelist, historian, and Radio Free Europe correspondent whose works are banned and who has been barred from traveling outside the reclusive, repressive country of Turkmenistan, as recipients of its 2006 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 18, 2006 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. In a direct challenge to the government of Turkmenistan, U.S. officials are joining PEN in pressing Turkmenistan to lift travel restrictions on Rakhim Esenov so that the 78 year-old writer can accept the award in person at the event.

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, Associate 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.

Mohammed Benchicou is the former director of Le Matin, a private daily newspaper that maintained an independent, critical editorial line toward the Algerian government.

On August 23, 2003, Benchicou was apprehended by the police at Algiers airport on his return from France and charged with currency control violations in a move widely understood to be an attempt to silence Le Matin in the run-up to the 2004 Algerian presidential election. Benchicou’s arrest was reportedly ordered by the Algerian Interior Minister Yazid Zerhouni, who Le Matin had accused in a 2003 article of involvement in torturing prisoners in the 1970s during his service as a military security commander. At a press conference in Djelfa in 2003, Zerhouni stated that Benchicou would “pay” for the accusation. Benchicou further angered officials in early 2004 when he published a satirical book about the Algerian president entitled Bouteflika, an Algerian Fraud. Benchicou is reportedly the first person ever to be imprisoned in Algeria for bringing money into the country in any form.

On June 14, 2004, Benchicou was sentenced to a two-year prison term and received a fine of 20m dinars (approx. US $280,000). The sentence was upheld on appeal on August 11, 2004, and Le Matin was closed down that same month. On April 20, 2005, Benchicou’s prison sentence was increased by five months as a result of two separate libel charges in connection with the publication of two articles in Le Matin. Benchicou has approximately 50 other cases pending against him and is reportedly taken to court once or twice a week for press charges dating back to 2002.

Conditions are harsh in El-Harrach Prison where Benchicou is being detained, with 50 prisoners to a cell and infestations of lice and cockroaches. Visiting is extremely restricted – Benchicou is able to see family members for 10 minutes per week. Benchicou’s wife reports that his health has deteriorated since his imprisonment and he is now seriously ill. He is suffering from arthritis and can no longer write with his right hand due to paralysis on the right side of his body. Despite numerous requests for necessary medical attention, Benchicou has not received medical care at any time during his imprisonment.

On February 23, 2004, novelist, historian, and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty correspondent Rakhim Esenov was questioned by members of the Turkmen Ministry of National Security (MNB) as he returned to Turkmenistan from receiving medical treatment abroad. During his interrogation, Esenov suffered a stroke and was taken to the hospital. Two days later he was interrogated again, and on February 26, Esenov was formally arrested and moved to an MNB prison.

Esenov was initially accused of smuggling 800 copies of his banned novel Ventsenosny Skitalets (The Crowned Wanderer) into Turkmenistan from Russia. Esenov denied this, and on March 2, the charge was dropped. However, he was then charged with “inciting social, national and religious hatred using the mass media.”  Esenov has indicated the charge refers to statements made by characters in The Crowned Wanderer, which is set in the 16th century Mogul Empire and centers on Bayram Khan, a poet, philosopher and army general who is said to have saved Turkmenistan from fragmentation. Publication of the novel was banned in Turkmenistan by President Saparmurad Niyazov, who publicly denounced it as “historically inaccurate” in 1997, apparently for correctly portraying Khan as a Shia rather than a Sunni Muslim. This offense carries a four-year prison sentence under Article 177, parts 1 and 2, of the Turkmen Criminal Code.

Esenov was also accused of failing to report details of a telephone conversation with former Turkmen Minister of Foreign Affairs Avdy Kuliev to the authorities. Kuliev, a key opposition figure and a staunch critic of the Niyazov regime, is currently living in exile in Moscow following a crackdown on the opposition in November 2002 that began after gunmen fired on Niyazov’s car in the capital, Ashgabat.

Esenov was finally released on March 9, 2004 after submitting a written guarantee to remain in Turkmenistan. However, the charges against him were not dropped, and the results of an investigation are still pending. He remains confined to the capital Ashgabat, has been ordered to cease working for RFE/RL, and remains under surveillance. He is in dire need of medical attention that is not available in Turkmenistan, and is unable to travel to Moscow to receive the treatment he needs.

Last week, officials from the United States embassy in Ashgabat visited Rakhim Esenov at his home and delivered the news that he is to receive a PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award. At that meeting, Esenov accepted PEN’s invitation to travel to New York for the awards, and the embassy is prepared to issue a diplomatic appeal to the government of Turkmenistan to allow him to board the airplane. The potential showdown is certain to attract international attention to Turkmenistan’s appalling record of violations of freedom of expression and  freedom of movement guarantees.

In announcing the awards today in New York, Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems praised both recipients for refusing to let their governments control their countries’ histories. “Mohammed Benchicou in his newspaper and Rakhim Esenov in his novels and his reporting have sacrificed their own freedoms to challenge the official version of events – Benchicou in Algeria, a country where human rights abuses persist and press freedoms are diminishing, and Esenov in Turkmenistan, a country whose citizens are almost completely cut off from the international community,” said Siems.  “PEN is proud to honor these two brave, defiant colleagues.” 

Siems also expressed his hope that the award would speed Mohammed Benchicou’s release and result in the restoration of Rakhim Esenov’s right to move about freely. “We are hoping that these awards will add to the international pressure on the government of Algeria to reverse Mohammed Benchicou’s conviction,” Siems added. “And we call upon the government of Turkmenistan to allow Rakhim Esenov to travel to New York to receive the award, and afterwards to receive the necessary medical treatment.”

This is the 20th 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 1,010 writers and journalists who are currently threatened or in prison. Thirty-seven women and men have received the award since 1987; 28 of the 30 honorees who were in prison at the time they were honored were subsequently released.

Larry Siems, (212) 334-1660 ext. 105