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Brave Women Detained For Challenging Governments

Nasrin Sotoudeh with her son after release from prison (Pic. PEN)

PEN America has recorded International Women’s Day (March 8) by posting stories of brave women who suffer for their activism in support of freedom of expression and human rights. While there are glimpses of hope because some have been released from prison and they are back fighting for causes dear to them, others are not so fortunate: they languish in detention or survive constant intimidation and harassment.

“There are so many women around the world who have been persecuted for their poetry, their journalism, their choice of partner, but have stood stronger than the obstacles they face,” says Sarah Hoffman.
The article focuses on Liu Xia, wife of Liu Xiaobo, the jailed Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Liu Xia has been under house arrest in hospital for three-and-a-half years, battling depression and severe heart condition, but barred from going overseas to seek treatment. 
The lives and fortunes of other brave women activists highlighted are: Ayse Berktay (Turkey), Nasrin Sotoudeh (Iran), Reeyot Alemu (Ethiopia) and Dina Meza (Honduras).
Click hereto read the article.

“Moderate” Rouhani’s Government Executes Iranian Poet Hashem Shabani

The Iranian government executed by hanging poet and human rights activist Hashem Shabani on January 27 for blasphemy (“speaking against God”). Before his execution 31-year-old Shabani was imprisoned for nearly three years and reportedly tortured.
“The crazy thing is that by the logic of the Iranian government, Shaabani had to be killed. He criticized God and the punishment for blasphemy is clear: death.  Technically, Shaabani criticized the regime by speaking out against repression of ethnic Arabs in the Khuzestan province, but since the regime sees itself as the representative of God on Earth, his fate was sealed,” writes David Keyes for the Daily Beast.

Shabani was an Ahwazi Arab minority, and member of al-Hiwar, an organisation promoting Ahwazi culture among the country’s majority Persians and campaigning for mother tongue education. Al-Hiwar was banned by Iran in May 2005 soon after anti-government riots.
Shabani and four others, including school teacher Hadi Rashedi, were arrested in 2011 and had no access to lawyers or family during the first nine months of their detention. They were also reportedly tortured and otherwise ill-treated says PEN America.
More controversially, a “confession” by Shabani was publicised by Iranian television admitting that he was a member of Popular Resistance, which had ties with Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gadaffi. “Later, in a letter alleged to have been written by Sha’bani in prison, he denied having used or advocated violence and said that he had been tortured to make his ‘confession’ and that his three attempts to retract his ‘confession’ in front of a judge were ignored” said PEN.
PEN said that Shabani’s relatives had been told the poet had been executed “on charges of ‘enmity against God,’ ‘corruption on earth,’ ‘gathering and colluding against state security,’ and ‘spreading propaganda against the system.'”
Keyes asks how the US and its western allies negotiating a deal on Iran’s nuclear weapons programme could claim the regime of President Hassan Rouhani is “moderate” when it executes people like Shabani.
“As world powers attempt to negotiate an accord with Iran, they would do well to keep Shaabani in mind.  What does the hanging of a poet have to do with nuclear negotiations?  Everything. It gets to the heart of the nature of the regime. Can the world trust a government which doesn’t even trust its own people?  Can the West rely on a regime which so fears dissidents that it puts them to death?” asks Keys.
Reacting to Shabani’s hanging, Marian Botsford Fraser, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee said, “While the releases last year of prominent writers such as lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh and journalist Jila Bani Yaghoub were welcome, the authorities [in Iran] must show that they are truly committed to respecting freedom of expression and other fundamental rights.”

World According To Obama: Praise King But Beef Up NSA

                 (Pic Courtesy PEN America)

President Barack Obama’s statement last Friday on the reforms on National Security Agency spying on US citizens and people overseas through mass metadata gathering of phone calls and internet content has had mixed reactions. 
While some believed it was that was a significant step forward in a tightly contested environment between national security and civil liberties, proponents of media freedom and human rights disagree. They say the reforms were far from adequate.
‘King Obama and Surveillance Today’ looks at media freedom in the context of another event that held the attention of American this week: Martin Luther King Day. Obama is a self-confessed admirer and votary of King. Yet King stood for universal and indivisible human rights. Further, he was the subject of FBI Director Edgar J. Hoover’s undying hatred and as such subject of surveillance of the Bureau.
“Obama specifically referred to the FBI’s war on King in his speech on Friday detailing surveillance reforms. But it makes little sense for the president to open the door on the deeply flawed surveillance program that plagued King while making cosmetic reforms to his own far-flung surveillance program,” writes Deji Olukotun in his blog post to PEN America.
Click here for the article

Tortured, Imprisoned and Beterayed, Muhammad Bekjanov Fights Against Uzbek Repression

Muhammad Bekjanov (Pic. PN America)

The prestigious Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Prize 2013, was announced Wednesday. The recipient in the ‘individual’ category was Uzbek journalist Muhammad Bekjanov, serving his 14thyear and second sentence in prison, while Sri Lanka’s Tamil-language newspaper the ‘Uthayan,’ attacked 35 times during its 28-year existence was awarded in the ‘newspaper’ category.
This blog featured the life and times of the ‘Uthayan’ in its post, Thursday. Today we will take a brief look at Bekjanov editor of the opposition newspaper ‘Erk’ and the political environment in which he wrote. 

Ranking 163rd (Sri Lanka) and 164th (Uzbekistan) among 179 countries in RSF’s Press Freedom Index, there are close similarities in the politico-legal environments in Sri Lanka and Uzbekistan.
The New York-based think-tank Freedom House says, “Uzbekistan’s legal framework ostensibly prohibits censorship and guarantees freedom of speech and the right to independent information. In practice, such protections are systematically ignored by President Islam Karimov’s autocratic government, which exerts near-total control over the media.”
According to Freedom House, conviction for defamation and libel could mean paying hefty sums as damages and imprisonment. In 2012 Viktor Krymzalov was convicted of defamation and ordered to pay US$1350 for an article published without a by-line that he denied writing. Other offences that are legally punishable are the vague “interference in internal affairs” and “insulting the dignity of citizens,” while insulting the president can earn offenders a five-year jail term. In April 2013 Yelena Bondar was fined US$2000 for “promoting national, racial, ethnic, or religious hatred” despite having decided not to publish the offending article.
Freedom House says that virtually all the media organisations are directly or indirectly linked the state, which is totally controlled by Karimov’s autocratic government. Uzbekistan’s National Security Service manipulates what news is published and the fear of reprisals has resulted in extensive self-censorship. One person who dared to challenge the system was Bekjanov.
Bekjanov is one of four journalists imprisoned in Uzbekistan. He and fellow journalist from ‘Erk’ Yusuf Ruzimuradov were imprisoned in 1999. (The other two are Salijon Abdurakhmanov of news website ‘Uznews‘ imprisoned since June 2008, and Dilmurod Saiid – a freelance journalist – imprisoned since February 2009). Prison conditions in Uzbekistan are described by RSF as “appalling.”
Bekjanov is one of the world’s longest imprisoned journalists. In January 2012, a few days before due to being released, he was incarcerated for a further five years ostensibly for breaking prison regulations.
He is said to be in very bad health and relatives and friends are only allowed occasional access to him. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) in a January 25, 2012 statement said, “In 2006, Bekjanov’s wife, Nina Bekjanova, visited him in prison, and told independent news website ‘Uznews‘ that the journalist had lost most of his teeth due to repeated beatings in custody.”
PEN America referring to Bekjenov’s health said, “On June 18, 2003, Bekjanov gave his first interview since his detention to representatives from the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), who were allowed to visit him in a prison hospital in Tashkent. Bekjanov said that he had contracted tuberculosis, a disease that has become endemic in Uzbek prisons. Due to torture, he is now deaf in his right ear and one of his legs is confirmed broken.”
Bekjanov had begun challenging the State from 1990s by questioning the use of forced labour to harvest cotton and the environment disaster in the Aral Sea. And soon he was to become a critic of the Kiramov regime.  
“The regime took advantage of a series of bombings in Tashkent in 1999 to silence its critics. Under torture, Bekjanov was forced to “confess” to being an accomplice to terrorism and was sentenced to 15 years in prison. In January 2012, just a few days before he was due to be released, he was sentenced to another four years and eight months in jail on a charge of disobeying prison officials,” said RSF.
CPJ gave details of the new sentence: “At a January 18 hearing held at the penal colony, Bekjanov’s three cell mates testified against him, accusing the journalist of violating a prison order after he argued with them, news reports said. However, ‘Uznews’ reported that the inmates appeared nervous in the courtroom, which led the journalist’s lawyer to believe they had been forced to testify against him.”
“The authoritarian government of Islam Karimov holds the disgraceful record of one of the top journalist jailers in Eurasia,” CPJ’s Europe and Central Asia Programme Coordinator Nina Ognianova said. “If Uzbekistan is to rejoin the international community, authorities must release all the journalists they are currently holding in retaliation for their work.”

Day of Imprisoned Writers – ‘Change only the name and this story is also about you.\’

November 15 is the international day of the imprisoned writer. PEN international and PEN networks in many countries have organised events to focus on one of most pernicious forms of censorship – imprisoning writers and journalists. According to PEN, more than 900 writers are in jail for their work, all over the world.
In an interview with Germany’s Radio Deutsche Welle, published on November 15, Sascha Feuchert, vice president of PEN Centre Germany and a representative of the writer-in-prison committee was asked what Germany could do for writers imprisoned in other countries.

He replied, “[w]e can bring these cases to light and keep them in the public eye. We do this on our website, over our social media channels and, of course, in our press releases. When things are made public, it seems that dictators or other unjust regimes are less likely to make these people ‘disappear.’ Publicity is extremely important. In addition, we try to get in contact with the imprisoned colleagues through letters to let them know that they’re not forgotten or alone. Unfortunately, we’re not always successful.”
In a reader-friendly interactive graphic PEN International has called attention to cases of writers and journalists in prisons all over the world, with appeals to the public to write letters for their release. Please click here.
This blog has highlighted the cases of many journalists who have been detained, often under counterterrorism laws, for publicising corruption, malfeasance and abuse by those in power. Some like Rodney Sieh editor of Liberia’s FrontPage Africa and Ethiopia’s Melaku Desmisse, editor of The Reporter, were released. But the regimes that detained them continue in power, which cannot be a comfort for someone who is inspired to expose wrongdoing.
But others remain in jail. Ethiopia Eskinder Nega’s sentence of 18 years in prison was upheld by a higher court in the appeal. Le Quoc Quan and a number of other Vietnamese bloggers are shut in by their government that fear the expression of dissent.
It is a grim, thankless business for organisations like PEN that work for the release or at least more human treatment of writers. As Feuchert says, “[t]he situation has not improved for persecuted writers around the world. But that doesn’t mean we should give up. These are individuals for whom we are fighting.”
Nega wrote a letterfrom prison on May 2, on the eve of Press Freedom Day after his appeal was rejected. Speaking about writers in prison he asks, “Why should the rest of the world care? Horace said it best: mutate nomine detefabula narrator. ‘Change only the name and this story is also about you.’ Whenever justice suffers our common humanity suffers, too.
I will live to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It may or may not be a long wait. Whichever way events may go, I shall persevere!”