By Suzanne Trimel

(NEW YORK)—The difficult plight of writers living under authoritarian rule has been well-documented over decades, with some enduring impossibly harsh treatment for their truth-telling and resistance to repression. Writers, as frequent targets to be silenced through arrest, torture, prison and even death, says Karin Deutsch Karlekar of PEN America, “are paying a very heavy price for free expression, which of course is not a crime.”

A global audience came face to face with the horrific predicament many writers face when, on Wednesday, PEN America hosted an online event that included writers and advocates who were themselves or had a family member kidnapped, tortured, detained, or imprisoned in their home countries.

Nadine Farid Johnson, director of PEN America’s Washington office, opened the conversation by pointing to “the true power of words and how those words can strike fear in the hearts of authoritarians.”

Karlekar, as director of Free Expression at Risk programs, said PEN America’s latest Freedom to Write Index documents at least 277 writers worldwide who were behind bars in 2021 simply for writing.

The five panelists included Jewher Ilham, the eldest daughter of imprisoned Uyghur writer-academic Ilham Tohti and a human rights advocate in her own right; Ma Thida, a Burmese author, trained medical doctor, surgeon, and human rights advocate; Nima Ghasemi, an Iranian writer and philosophy researcher who was detained in February 2021, now in exile; Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, a Ugandan novelist and lawyer who was detained three times over two years for his satirical fiction that turned an unwelcome critical eye on corruption and extrajudicial killings in a fictionalized country but which nevertheless got under the skin of Ugandan strongman Yoweri Museveni; and Taciana Niadbaj, president of PEN Belarus, which has been officially shut down by the Belarus Supreme Court.

It is not only their writings that make writers targets; it is often the fact that they are at the forefront of resistance to authoritarian regimes’ efforts to crack down on free expression and upend human rights altogether.

Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, the Ugandan author of The Greedy Barbarian and Banana Republic: Where Writing is Treasonous, captured the chill on free expression in his own country and others where rulers trample on the freedom to write: “They think the freedom to write is only when you are praising them. They don’t see it as the right to tell the unflattering truth. When you write a true description of who they are, they come for you.”

For The Greedy Barbarian, Rukirabashaija won the 2021 International Writer of Courage award, part of the prestigious PEN Pinter Prize, awarded to an author deemed to have fulfilled Harold Pinter’s aspiration to “define the real truth of our lives and our societies.”

Rukirabashaija was arrested on April 13, 2020, on charges ostensibly related to Covid-19, but interrogated about his novel. He was charged with ‘doing an act likely to spread the infection of disease…’ He was tortured while detained the first time, arrested again and again tortured. His second book, Banana Republic, described the torture he endured.

He told the audience on Wednesday: “Denying the freedom to write is like denying the freedom to think and criticize. Keeping quiet about injustice is giving an opportunity to let this foolishness bloom without criticism. We cannot keep quiet about the evil they are doing. I decided to stand my ground. I endured it.

Ma Thida, the Burmese author and advocate, said writers especially are targets because their writings shape public opinion and can ignite resistance to repression.

The political nature of Thida’s writing made her a target for the oppressive regime in Myanmar, and she was sentenced to 20 years in Insein Prison in 1993 for “endangering public peace, having contact with illegal organizations, and distributing unlawful literature.” She was denied medical care for various health ailments during the six years of her prison sentence that she served in terrible, inhumane conditions. In 1996 she received PEN America’s Freedom to Write Award, but she was not released until 1999.

She said: “Writers are interpreting the question ‘what is freedom?’ This is the hardest thing for the military (regime in Myanmar) to cope with. Writers can make an impact on the way people look at their freedom, to identify what is freedom and then to fight for freedom. This is why the military is afraid of the writers.”

Thida, now in temporary exile in the United States, noted that in Myanmar writers face serious financial hardships because the military regime has crushed publishing and book sales. “Many have to rely on fundraising to support themselves,” she said. “This is the only way they are coping.” Myanmar is among the top 3 jailers of writers worldwide, behind China and Saudi Arabia.

Jewher Ilham has been a tireless global advocate on behalf of her father, Ilham Tohti, the outspoken economist and scholar of China’s Uighur minority who has been sentenced to life in prison. In 2014, he was accused of advocating the overthrow of the Chinese government, separatism, and violence; subjected to a two-day trial; and sentenced to life.

In the years since her father was imprisoned Ilham has learned the hard lesson that she is not alone. “It’s no longer about one family. I meet the sisters, the daughters and the fathers and mothers of people who are also in prison. Hundreds of people.” She said the collective leadership of writers and other advocates worldwide who speak out on behalf of those who have been silenced is “imperative.” She added: “We need to put names and faces to the writers who are locked up so they are not forgotten.” Uighurs make up a large percentage of the writers imprisoned by China, which PEN America notes is the top jailer of writers worldwide.

Nima Ghasemi, the Iranian writer and philosophy researcher, who was arrested and accused of propaganda against the system, described an ordeal that lasted more than a decade. He was attacked in his apartment in Tehran by agents of the state and prevented from publishing in Iran. The state even circulated spurious rumors to his neighbors that he was a sexual predator.

“After more than 40 years, we have not recovered from the revolution,” he said, describing it as a “sickness” that pervades Iranian society and puts writers, philosophers, poets and others in danger. Iran continues to be among the top five jailers of writers worldwide.

Taciana Niadbaj of PEN Belarus described a general crackdown on cultural and educational institutions in which those who are disloyal to the Russian-backed regime are fired and hundreds have been jailed for speaking out. Niadbaj, who now lives outside of Belarus, said: “The authorities continue to put pressure on NGOs. As of the end of March 2022, 382 Belarusian nonprofit organizations have been liquidated. No less than 98 are directly related to the field of culture.” Despite being formally dissolved by a Belarusian court in August 2021, PEN Belarus perseveres in documenting its government’s assaults on writers, artists, and all those who insist on their right to speak freely.

As the event concluded, Farid Johnson asked the panelists how they draw hope when faced with situations that remain dangerous and difficult for writers.

Jewher said: “As long as the situation does not change there is hope that it will. Every day our efforts bring a little hope, and that keeps me going. That there are little positive changes, gives hope that these changes will get bigger.”

Rukirabashaija, the Ugandan who fled his country, said simply: “I promised I would use my pen to live so that one day my children will have a better life. This is what I do.”