Today is the day of the imprisoned writer and last night a fantastic crowd of about sixty people came to Poetry Ireland in Dublin to listen to poems by four poets who have been silenced and imprisoned by their Governments: Galal El Hairy, from Egypt, Chimengul Awut from China, Nedim Türfent, Turkey and Dawit Issak from Eritrea.
There were brief introductions to each of the imprisoned poets and writers from the members of a group, Freedom to Write who organised the event and then four Irish poets read their work. These writers were imprisoned for writing articles or tender, gentle lines about freedom by people more concerned with personal power than in the magnificence and beauty of their countries. It made me ask the question, who is the real traitor? Dawit Issak from Eritrea has been imprisoned for nearly 19 years with no trial. He has been ‘disappeared’ with no trial and no word, and there are many writers like him across the world.
Photographs of the poets were on the Poetry Ireland mantelpiece, like family photos, and there were brief, very beautiful, haunting musical interludes from from two musicians, Eamon Sweeney and Cormac Breatnach who played a kind of low whistle (a tabhar dom do lambth) and spanish guitar/banjo kind of instrument (sorry, I didn’t get its name). The music was very effective. Having heard the poems, closing my eyes and listening to the beautifully clear notes and melodies somehow moved me closer to the imprisoned poets. I imagined the confined space, the dirt, the hunger, the sorrow, the longing to be free and human.
I seem to spend much of my time, these days, being relieved or grateful. I have much to appreciate: I am not homeless, I have a basic income, I am educated. I am free to travel, think, and write. I can vote. I am healthy. There is love and friendship all around me. Yet, I still feel a sense of increasing powerlessness, and the closing in of walls. This may be due to age as well as the rise of the power of the individual reflected in our politics and social media. I find it debilitating. Feeling simply grateful and relieved that it’s not me who suffering is degrading, and I wonder if it is reflective of what happened in Germany in the 1930s. Being part of the Freedom to Write Campaign, actively un-silencing the writers Governments imprison, by reading and hearing their writing, makes me feel stronger. As writers and poets we want the power of language released and channelled into expression, love, reason, beauty and civilisation – the key elements of humanity.
Last night, I felt grateful that I was free to hear the poetry and music, and that I could come home to a warm and welcoming home, but I also felt angry and frustrated that in this world that so many people today are imprisoned, if not by governments or dictators, then by poverty, bullies, injustice and most of all, insecurity. It is good to speak out. On the day of the imprisoned writer, speak out.
The Irish poets reading the work were Celia de Fréine, Colm Keegan, Maria McManus, and Chris Murray. Thank you to the Freedom to Write Group for organising, and to Poetry Ireland and Irish Pen for the support.
Galal El-Behairy, poet, lyricist and activist (MALE)
Poet, lyricist and activist Galal El-Behairy is serving a three-year prison sentence for ‘insulting the military’ and ‘spreading false news’. He is being held in the notorious maximum-security prison Tora prison in Cairo. Nicknamed ‘Scorpion’ Prison, Tora has been condemned by scores of human rights organisations for its serious abuses, including denying inmates access to lawyers, their families, medical care and basic of hygiene products. Its infamous solitary confinement cells — which El-Behairy was subjected to — are cramped and airless. According to Galal El-Behairy’s lawyer has shown signs of severe torture, after his initial detention during which he was held incommunicado for a week. On 31st of July 2018, Cairo’s Military Court sentenced El-Behairy to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of 10 000 Egyptian pounds (560 USD). Following El-Behairy’s conviction, the publisher of his latest book of poetry, The Finest Women on Earth, terminated their contract with him and publicly stated that its agreement to publish the work did not imply its agreement with the book’s content. Galal El-Behairy remains in prison, and is currently serving his sentence.
Dawit Isaak has been held incommunicado in Eritrea for over 17 years (MALE)
Dawit Isaak, an award-winning Swedish-Eritrean journalist and writer, has been held incommunicado in Eritrea for over 17 years. His case is emblematic of the dire situation facing independent journalists in the country, many of whom have been subjected to systematic arbitrary arrests, threats, harassment and enforced disappearances over the years. Isaak was one of several journalists arrested during the government’s September 2001 crackdown on independent voices in the press and politics. Very little is known about his current circumstances. Although Eritrea’s Foreign Minister claimed in a 2016 interview that all of the journalists and politicians arrested in 2001 were still alive – including Isaak – no proof has yet been provided. Similarly, there is little information available concerning the charges against these prisoners; the Foreign Minister has said that those arrested would be tried “when the government decides.” Isaak was awarded the UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize in 2017.
News editor and reporter, Nedim Türfent (MALE) ‘No matter what the price or consequence might be, we will never compromise from the magical creations of writing and of the written word. We would like to repeat once again our gratitude to PEN members, who have stood by us on this path.’ Nedim Türfent
15 December marked one year since news editor and reporter, Nedim Türfent, was sentenced to eight years and nine months in prison on trumped-up terrorism charges following an unfair trial, during which scores of witnesses said they had been tortured into testifying against him. Prior to his arrest, Nedim Türfent was covering Turkish military operations in southeast Turkey. He spent almost two years in solidarity confinement in harrowing detention conditions. His sentence was upheld on 19 June 2018 and his lawyers have lodged an appeal before the Constitutional Court. Determined to keep writing, Nedim Türfent started composing poetry while detained. PEN International believes that Nedim Türfent is being imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of his right to freedom of expression and calls for his immediate and unconditional release.
Chimengül Awut a renowned Uyghur poet (FEMALE) Police in Kashgar, a city in Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, arrested Chimengul Awut, a poet and editor for the state-owned Kashgar Publishing House, in July 2018, according to Radio Free Asia. Awut was arrested as part of a more than year-long crackdown on the publishing company in which several other former and current staff were detained.
As well as Awut, police arrested Ablajan Siyit, a deputy editor-in-chief and translator, and former editors-in-chief Osman Zunun, who retired 10 years ago, and Abliz Omer, who retired 20 years ago, according to the RFA report. The report did not name the other staff arrested.
According to the report, the staff are accused of producing books that were deemed “problematic” or “dangerous.”
RFA cited a member of the local judiciary as saying in a phone interview that the arrests were part of a government investigation into books that may be politically sensitive. The judiciary member said that Kashgar Publishing House was accused of publishing more than 600 books that fell into this category. The investigation focused on authors, editors, and those who authorized the publications, according to Radio Free Asia.