15th to 19th November 2021
Every year on 15 November PEN launches its Day of the Imprisoned Writer campaign, highlighting the cases of writers who are imprisoned or facing prosecution and calling for urgent international action to release and protect them. The five cases we present are emblematic of the type of threats and attacks writers and journalists around the world are often subjected to, for peacefully exercising their right to freedom of expression.
This year, on the 40th anniversary of the campaign, PEN is featuring the cases of Mohammed Al-Roken (UAE), Rahile Dawut (China - Xinjiang), Selahattin Demirtaş (Turkey), Maykel Osorbo (Cuba), and the collective case of 12 writers imprisoned since 2001 (Eritrea). Please take action with us on the following days:
How does the Day of the Imprisoned Writer work?
Established in 1981 by PEN International's Writers in Prison Committee, the Day of the Imprisoned Writer is an opportunity for the PEN’s movement to take action on behalf of selected writers and ensure that they and their families feel supported and not forgotten.
PEN Centres and members worldwide advocate for these cases, with activities ranging from letter-writing and panel discussions, to press conferences and publishing the work of imprisoned writers. PEN’s supporters engage in activities such as raising awareness of their situation and taking action on social media, or in the form of donations. Writers send solidarity letters to their colleagues in prison or under threat.
Read this year's solidarity letters in support of our imprisoned writers:
Read about Mohammed Al-Roken (UAE), Rahile Dawut (China - Xinjiang), Selahattin Demirtaş (Turkey), Maykel Osorbo (Cuba), and the collective case of 12 writers imprisoned since 2001 (Eritrea).
Watch our video on the 40th anniversary of the campaign and see how you can take action today.
Maykel Castillo Pérez, widely known by the name Maykel Osorbo, is a musician, rapper and author of independent music in Cuba. Osorbo is co-author, alongside other Cuban musicians, of “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”), a song that since its release in February 2021 has served as a rallying cry of hope and an anthem during anti-government demonstrations across the island. The song was nominated for the Best Urban Song and Song of the Year at the Latin Grammy Awards. Osorbo is also one of the founders of the Movimiento San Isidro (MSI), a group of Cuban artists and intellectuals founded in 2018 to protest state censorship of artistic, literary or journalistic works and defend freedom of expression in Cuba.
Osorbo was detained on 18 May 2021 while at home and was subjected to enforced disappearance for 14 days. News outlets later reported that he had been held in custody and transferred to 5 y Medio prison, in Pinar del Río, on 31 May, accused of alleged crimes such as “resistance” and “contempt” in relation to his refusal to be arrested as he was trying to reach the headquarters of the MSI on 4 April 2021. His provisional detention does not comply with international legal requirements or the Cuban criminal code.
Osorbo has suffered no less than 121 acts of police harassment, including multiple arrests. On 24 September 2018, he was arrested after performing at a concert where he and other rappers publicly opposed Decree 349, a law that regulates all artistic expression in Cuba and silences those that speaks against the government. On 20 March 2019, he was sentenced to one and a half years in prison for allegedly assaulting a police officer. The rapper was released on 24 October 2019 after the defence demonstrated that his legal proceedings had been violated, and that there had been contradictory testimonies and insufficient evidence against him. He was again detained for three days in April 2020 for allegedly promoting “illegal images”, whilst streaming a Facebook Live video where he discussed local politics, COVID-19 in Cuba, and criticised the Cuban authorities.
On 11 February 2021, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) granted precautionary measures in favour of 20 members of the MSI, including Osorbo, after considering that, as human rights defenders, they are in a serious and urgent risk of irreparable harm to their rights. Osorbo has not had access to a fair trial and, according to the testimony of his relatives, he is receiving threats from the authorities inside the prison.
The case of Osorbo is emblematic of the Cuban government’s policy of repression of freedom of expression and persecution of critical voices. State-sponsored acts of violence and cases of arbitrary arrest have severely increased over the past year, hitting a peak in July with attacks on peaceful demonstrators. Since 11 July 2021, more than one thousand arrests and disappearances, including instances of people forced to go into hiding, have been recorded. At least 55 artists and writers are currently either under house arrest, imprisoned, or under investigation.
The Cuban authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Maykel Osorbo, and end all ongoing criminal proceedings against him.
This is what you can do:
Here is a sample letter you can adapt. Please send letters, social media messages and emails to:
President Sr. Miguel Díaz-Canel:
Minister of Justice Oscar Silvera Martínez:
Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso Grau:
Minister of Foreign Affairs (Minrex) Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla:
Please send emails to the Embassy of the Republic of Cuba in your own country.
Please inform PEN International of any action you take and of any responses you receive.
Raise awareness of Maykel Osorbo’s case on social media, using the sample messages below and the hashtags #MaykelOsorbo #FreeMaykel #ImprisonedWriter.
Please share this graphic on social media to highlight Maykel Osorbo’s case.
We further encourage you to highlight the case of Maykel Osorbo and the state of freedom of expression in Cuba by:
Please keep us informed of your activities. Messages can be sent to Alicia Quiñones, Americas Programme Coordinator, at PEN International, email: email@example.com.
Selahattin Demirtaş is a writer and former co-chair of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP).
Demirtaş was arrested on 4 November 2016, alongside several HDP MPs, on charges of being a leading member of a terrorist organisation, spreading terrorist propaganda, praising crimes and criminals and inciting public hatred and hostility. The evidence used against him consists largely of his political speeches and press statements and lacks any compelling evidence of criminal activity. To date, the Turkish authorities have failed to implement a December 2020 ruling by the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, which ordered Demirtaş’ immediate release. The Grand Chamber was ruling on an appeal of a landmark judgement issued by one of the Court’s regular chambers in November 2018, which found that his arrest and pre-trial detention pursued an ulterior purpose, namely to stifle pluralism and limit freedom of political debate.
In a separate case, on 7 September 2018, Demirtaş was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison for allegedly carrying out terrorist propaganda during a speech he gave in 2013. Shortly before the Grand Chamber hearing, Demirtaş’ release from pre-trial detention was ordered, but he remained in prison due to this separate case. His sentence was upheld by the Court of Cassation on 26 April 2021 and became final that day.
New terrorism charges were brought against him on 20 September 2019, as part of a probe into deadly protests that took place across Turkey from 6 to 9 October 2014, which began over accusations that the Turkish army stood by as Islamic State militants besieged the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane. Demirtaş stands accused of having organised those protests through his political statements and social media posts, and is being held responsible for all offences allegedly committed during the clashes. Charges against him include undermining the unity and territorial integrity of the state, homicide, robbery and damage to property. On 7 January 2021, a Turkish penal court approved the indictment against him and on 25 May 2021 this case, known as the Kobane trial, was merged with his main trial which was the basis of his initial pre-trial detention. He faces life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Demirtaş is being held in Edirne prison, western Turkey, over 1600km away from his loved ones in Diyarbakır.
While in prison, he wrote a collection of short stories entitled Seher (Dawn), which instantly became a best-seller and was translated into scores of languages, notably being awarded a PEN Translates award by English PEN. His latest book Devran was published in 2019. Demirtaş is an honorary member of German PEN and PEN Català.
The Turkish authorities must immediately release Selahattin Demirtaş and quash his conviction, in accordance with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights and end all ongoing criminal proceedings against him. This is what you can do:
Send appeals to:
Minister of Justice Abdulhamit Gül:
Send copies to the Embassy of Turkey in your own country, as well as to your country’s representatives in Turkey. Embassy addresses may be found here.
Raise awareness of Selahattin Demirtaş’ case on social media, using the sample messages below and the following hashtags #SelahattinDemirtaş; #freedemirtaş #ImprisonedWriter:
Please share this graphic on social media to highlight Demirtaş’ case.
Please send messages to:
Selahattin Demirtaş, Edirne F Tipi CİK B1-38, EDİRNE (TURKEY)
Please consider electing Selahattin Demirtaş as an honorary member of your Centre.
We further encourage you to highlight the case of Selahattin Demirtaş, and the state of freedom of expression in Turkey, by:
Please keep us informed of your activities. Messages can be sent to Aurélia Dondo, Europe Programme Coordinator: Aurelia.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Born in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China (PRC), Rahile Dawut is a prominent anthropologist and leading expert on the study of Uyghur folklore and cultural traditions. An associate professor at Xinjiang University and founder of the university’s Minorities Folklore Research Center, Dawut is recognised internationally for her unique contribution to the study and cataloguing of Uyghur cultural heritage. Her work was also recognised and supported by the PRC government. In 2016, just a year before she was initially detained, Dawut received a research grant from the Ministry of Culture, reportedly the largest ever given to a Uyghur research project.
Dawut disappeared in late 2017, shortly after making plans to travel from Xinjiang to Beijing to participate in an academic conference. It is presumed that the PRC government is responsible for her disappearance, holding her in secret without confirmation of her detention for over three years, despite international outcry and media attention, and a campaign led by Dawut’s daughter calling for her release.
In July 2021, investigative reporting by Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service confirmed her imprisonment according to sources within Xinjiang University.
Dawut’s imprisonment is emblematic of the Chinese government’s efforts to dislocate the Uyghur population from their cultural identity and heritage through overwhelming levels of censorship and repression. Since the establishment of Xinjiang’s expansive network of re-education camps in 2017, over a million Uyghurs and other minorities have been detained, includinghundreds of writers, poets, translators, scholars and public intellectuals, who together represent the living embodiment of Uyghur culture.
PEN International considers Rahile Dawut’s imprisonment to be a clear breach of her right to freedom of expression and calls for her immediate and unconditional release. This is what you can do:
Raise awareness about Rahile Dawut’s case on social media, using the sample messages below and the hashtags #FreeRahileDawut #FreeRahile #ImprisonedWriter
Please share this graphic on social media to highlight Dawut’s case.
Please consider electing Rahile Dawut as an honorary member of your Centre.
We also encourage you to highlight the case of Rahile Dawut by:
Please keep us informed of your activities. Messages can be sent to Ross Holder, Asia Programme Coordinator: email@example.com.
Writer, journalist, and playwright
Journalist, poet, art critic, and song writer
Said Idris ‘Abu Are’
Writer, journalist, and translator
Journalist, comedian, actor
Journalist and lawyer
Fessehaye ‘Joshua’ Yohannes
Writer, journalist, and playwright
Yousif Mohammed Ali
Sahle ‘Wedi-ltay’ Tsefezab
Twenty years ago, in September 2001, the Eritrean authorities launched a massive crackdown on regime critics. As part of the crackdown, on 18 and 19 September, the security forces arrested and detained 11 out of 15 dissenting members (commonly known as the G-15) of the ruling People’s Front for Democracy and Justice (PDFJ), on charges of committing crimes against national security and sovereignty. The G-15 had earlier published an open letter in which they denounced the President’s abuse of power and presented his actions as ‘illegal and unconstitutional’.
On 18 September, the authorities also shut down all independent newspapers in the country, including the weeklies Meqaleh, Setit, Tsigenay, Zemen, Wintana and Admas which were closed down for publishing the G-15’s open letter and conducting media interviews on the issues raised in the letter. On 21 September twelve journalists, all associated with the banned independent media outlets, were rounded up by security forces and detained. Some of these journalists are also writers, poets, translators, playwrights, songwriters and art critics. The Eritrean authorities have held them and the G-15 members in incommunicado detention without access to family members, lawyers or independent doctors, and without trial, for two decades.
Over the years, there have been unverified reports that several of the detainees died in custody due to ill-treatment and neglect. The Eritrean authorities have ignored calls by human rights organizations and regional and international human rights mechanisms for justice for the detainees, with official denials of the clampdown in 2002. The authorities also claimed that the writers and journalists had merely been sent to carry out their national service, and that all those arrested in 2001 are alive without providing proofs to substantiate these claims.
Eritrea is a militarized authoritarian, single party state that has been consistently ranked as one of the worst countries for freedom of expression in the world, with independent media banned since 2001. Virtually all critical voices (journalists, writers, poets, playwrights, musicians, artists, dissenting politicians) are arbitrarily detained for indefinite periods, disappeared, forced to flee into exile or subjected to extrajudicial killings. Its democratic constitution, which guarantees the freedoms of speech and the press, was ratified in 1997 but not instituted. Eritrea has not held national elections since independence from Ethiopia in 1993 and the Transition National Assembly, which was established to act as the legislative body until national elections are held, has not met since 2002.
PEN International considers the continued arbitrary and incommunicado detention of Eritrean journalists, writers, poets and government critics a violation of their human rights, including their right to freedom of expression, personal liberty, and life. The Eritrean authorities must immediately and unconditionally release Dawit Isaak; Amanuel Asrat; Said Idris ‘Abu Are’; Temesken Ghebreyesus; Methanie Haile; Fessehaye ‘Joshua’ Yohannes; Yousif Mohammed Ali; Seyoum Tsehaye; Dawit Habtemichael; Said Abdelkadir; Sahle ‘Wedi-ltay’ Tsefezab; and Matheos Habteab.
This is what you can do:
Write a letter or e-mail to the Eritrean authorities
Please send letters and emails to:
President of Eritrea H.E. Isaias Afewerki:
The Minister of Information Hon. Yemane Gebremeskel:
Raise awareness about the Eritrean journalists, writers, poets, and government critics detained without trial and held incommunicado for 20 years using the sample messages below and the hashtags #FreeEritreanWriters #ImprisonedWriter:
Please share this graphic on social media together with your messages.
We also encourage you to:
Please read and share The Scourge of War, a poem by imprisoned writer Amanuel Asrat
Invading the calm
Where two brothers pass each other by
Where two brothers meet
Where two brothers join
In the piazza of life and death
In the gulf between calamity and culture
In the valley of anxiety and peace
While the chia and seraw acacias spat at each other
Sorghum and millet cut each other down
With no one to collect them they feed on one another,
Until a single seed remains …
Brimming with tears
Sowed unto itself.
In earth yet to gush In that indiscernible thing
Stream of blood and water,
The seed …
The freezing sun
Tempestuous nimbus cloud
Scalding rain …
Slipping through littered iron
Climbing onto the spirit of death
Shouldering its sterile life
Here, it has grasped at spring.
The seed …
Arrived on its own
From the blood and water yet to gush
Whose and to whom unascertained
Its tributaries unidentifiable
When it parted that spring
But in that spring …
When the seed looked to the right
He was a man, it was a beard
When it looked to the left
He was the earth, it was a seed
Bewildered… it fed on amazement
Tempted … but joining forces is not like it
Who should it stick with, where should it lurk
Who should it win over or be thrown at
But that spring’s dirtiness is its ugliness
It plowed with the beak of bullet
Spilled infinite lives Swept breath
Reaped death with death
Threshing it on the shoulders of our offspring
Finally bruised the fruit in distrust.
For the fruit …
When day and night became one
Anxiety and calm mingled
A world within a world
War within peace
Trust in betrayal’s backdoor
It sunk in bewilderment.
Is it not bewildering?
The scourge of this spring of war
After a mother’s tear for her children
The clan’s tear for its time
The earth’s tear for the earth
Flowed and flowed like a stream
Soon the earth became wet and muddy
The property, mired
Entrapping all … robbing them Then the shovel and the pick were produced
And the shroud and the stretcher sprang up
How fast everything is used up and everyone scrambles for it
All of us crave and own it
The ugliness of this thing, war
When its spring arrives unwished-for
When its ravaging echoes knock at your door
It is then that war’s curse brews doom
But … You serve it willy-nilly
Unwillingly you keep it company
Still, you pray so hard for it to be silenced!
Amanuel Asrat (1999). Translated from Tigrinya by Tedros Abraham in collaboration with David Shook (2015)
Please keep us informed of your actions. Messages can be sent to Nduko o’Matigere, Africa Regional Programme Coordinator: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dr Al-Roken has been persecuted by the UAE authorities for a long time due to his human rights work. He was arrested in August 2006, detained for a few days, and interrogated about his role in founding the Emirati Human Rights Association. During this time, the authorities confiscated his passport, subjected him to surveillance and banned him from leaving the country, as well as from writing for and giving interviews to media.
On 17 July 2012, UAE State Security arrested Dr Al-Roken searched his house, confiscated his personal belongings, and took him to an unidentified location where he was detained in solitary confinement for three months, without access to his lawyer or his family. On 4 March 2013, he was tried before the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court in the notorious “UAE 94” case, alongside 93 other activists, accused of several bogus and vague charges, including allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. In June 2013, human rights organizations revealed that the state security officers had subjected Dr Al-Roken and the other “UAE 94” defendants to systematic mistreatment, including torture, while in pre-trial detention.
On 2 July 2013, the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court convicted Dr Al-Roken and sentenced him to ten years in prison, followed by three years of probation, and handed down prison terms between seven and 15 years to 68 other defendants, including eight in absentia. Leading human rights organisations regarded the trial as unfair and their imprisonment a violation of their rights to freedom of expression and association.
In April 2014, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) issued an opinion recognising the arbitrary nature of the detention of Dr Al-Roken and 60 other defendants in the “UAE 94” mass trial. In its opinion, the WGAD raised concerns over the defendants' claims that they were beaten with a plastic tube all over their bodies while tied to a chair, threatened with electrocution, insulted and humiliated in attempts to force them to confess to acts they did not commit. The WGAD also underlined the defendants’ allegations of being subjected to prolonged solitary confinement; exposed to unremitting fluorescent lighting and inadequate heating; and hooded when being taken from their cells. It further raised concerns about the flagrant breaches of fair trial guarantees, including through the denial of their right to appeal any judicial decision. The WGAD concluded that the conviction of the defendants was based on charges of acts that would fall under the rights to freedom of expression and of assembly, and urged the UAE government to release them and provide them with adequate reparation.
Dr Al-Roken has been serving his prison sentence in the notorious Al-Razeen maximum-security prison, often referred to as the Guantanamo of the UAE. In July 2019 the WGAD and three UN experts, including the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression, expressed concerns about his detention conditions. Experts highlighted that Dr Al-Roken regularly faces arbitrary disciplinary measures, including being placed in solitary confinement without access to daylight, being subjected to invasive body searches and the seizing of personal items, as well as being deprived of family visits and medical care.
Dr Mohammed Al-Roken’s case exemplifies the authoritarian nature of the Emirati regime and highlights the dire situation of freedom of expression in the UAE. PEN International considers Dr Al-Roken’s imprisonment arbitrary and a clear violation of his right to freedom of expression. The UAE authorities must immediately and unconditionally release him, and drop all charges against him. They should also ensure Al-Roken has regular access to his family and lawyers, and to medical care, and protection from torture and other forms of ill-treatment, pending his release.
This is what you can do:
Here is a sample letter you can adapt. Please send this letter to:
President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan:
Send a communication form to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Vice President and Prime Minister of the UAE and Ruler of Dubai, urging him to take all the necessary steps to ensure Dr Mohammed Al-Roken’s release and protection from all forms of torture and ill-treatment.
Send social media messages of solidarity and call for Dr Mohammed Al-Roken’s release through these Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Raise awareness of Dr Mohammed Al-Roken’s case on social media, using the sample messages below and the following hashtags #MohammedAlRoken #FreeAlRoken #ImprisonedWriter
Please share this graphic on social media to highlight Dr Mohammed Al-Roken ’s case.
Please consider electing Dr Mohammed Al-Roken as an honorary member of your Centre.
We further encourage you to highlight the case of Dr Mohammed Al-Roken, by:
Please keep us informed of your activities. Messages can be sent to Mina Thabet, MENA Regional Coordinator, at Mina.Thabet@pen-international.org.
PEN International activities to commemorate the Day of the Imprisoned Writers 2021 are part of a series of events planned throughout 2021 to mark PEN International’s Centenary. Founded in 1921 by English writer Catherine Amy Dawson Scott, PEN International has spent 100 years celebrating literature and protecting freedom of expression.
For further information, please contact Sabrina Tucci, Communications and Campaigns Manager: Sabrina.Tucci@pen-international.org | Twitter: @pen_int | Facebook: @peninternational | www.pen-international.org
The distressing stories of imprisoned writers are sadly representative of a growing and worrying effort across the continents to stamp out the right to freedom of expression. In 2020, we documented 220 proven persecutions and attacks on people using their words to confront sexual violence, share the truth about COVID-19 and the environmental crisis, promote justice and equality, and more. We urgently need your support today to protect our friends, ourselves, and the future of freedom of expression.Donate to PEN International