A month into my new job at PEN nearly six years ago, at a Congressional hearing in Washington, Jerry Yang, the CEO of Yahoo, made a tearful, public apology to the mother of Shi Tao, an Independent Chinese PEN Center member who had been sentenced to 10 years in prison in China after the Internet company released his email records to authorities. That act alone did not free him, but it, along with years of international pressure from governments, individuals, and organizations, including a concerted and prolonged campaign from PEN centers around the world, certainly helped. Today, 15 months before the end of his sentence, Shi Tao is free.

On November 24, 2004, Shi Tao, a poet and journalist with Dangdai ShangBao (Contemporary Business News), was arrested seven months after forwarding a memo issued by China’s Central Propaganda Department that gave instructions on information gathering and media coverage of the 15th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. He was later charged with “leaking state secrets abroad,” and on April 27, 2005, after Yahoo disclosed his personally identifiable information, Shi Tao was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

In a statement released on Saturday, Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, said, “We welcome news of Shi Tao’s early release, at a time when there seem to be increasingly long shadows over freedom of expression in China.” Those shadows are documented in The PEN Report: Creativity and Constraint in Today’s China.

Still, Shi Tao proves that a critical mass of support can dramatically change the lives of prisoners inside China. For two years, Shi Tao was forced to do manual labor for long hours in a factory within a high-security prison—conditionsthat led to a severe respiratory illness. He wasn’t allowed to read or write. When pressure built up in the outside world, he was transferred to another prison where he worked regular hours as a tracer in a machinery plant four days a week. Eventually, he was permitted to read and write—in prison, he learned of Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize in an issue of the newspaper The Global Times, the overseas edition of the official People’s Daily. In prison, he was allowed to create.

We look forward to hearing more from Shi Tao now that he’s free. In the meantime, the Independent Chinese PEN Center’s Zhang Yu translated several of the poems Shi wrote in prison. He penned “Song of October” after he read about about Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel.

Welcome home, Shi Tao.

Song of October

A short poem at last seems like a tide of sounds
Sharply ending
Momentary silence has attracted
Rough and clumsy footsteps of the bise in winter
Triumphal procession like a poem is somewhere
So many pairs of brave and nimble hands are
Playing quickly on the keyboards –
Song of the Earth, and Song of Freedom
“Is it the rustling of wind through the forests in the lush mountains?
Or the ominous thunder hidden on the summit of the snowy peak? ”
The connotation in a drop of ink is
A testimony on the last drop of blood shedding for the victory
His eyes are grim
And people are looking with him at the sky
Comes from afar, but not to end
Will become a festival for all the unfortunates and their friends

October, 22 2010