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Iranian publisher and Uzbek novelist to receive 2001 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards



(PEN/IFEX) - The following is a 5 April 2001 PEN American Center press release:




Iranian Publisher and Uzbek Novelist to Receive 2001 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards

New York, New York, April 5, 2001 - PEN American Center today named Shahla Lahiji, a publisher who is one of 19 Iranian writers and intellectuals prosecuted for participating in a conference in Berlin last year, and Mamadali Mahmudov, a renowned novelist and opposition activist serving a 14-year prison term in Uzbekistan on what PEN believes are fabricated charges, as recipients of its 2001 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards. The two awards, which this year carry stipends of $10,000 each, will be presented at PEN's Annual Gala on April 23, 2001 at the New York State Theater in Lincoln Center.

The first woman to own and operate a publishing house in Iran, Shahla Lahiji founded Rashangaran Publishing in 1983 and has published over 200 titles, including many groundbreaking works by women. She was one of 16 prominent cultural figures invited to participate in a conference the Heinrich Böll Institute organized in Berlin in April 2000 that brought Iranian writers and intellectuals together with Iranians living in exile to debate political and social reform in Iran. After returning to Iran, the participants and three translators accused of helping to organize the event were summoned to court, charged with crimes including endangering national security, and detained for trial.

Lahiji was held in Evin Prison and interrogated for several months without access to her attorney before being released on bail in June. Trial proceedings against the conference participants began in October, first behind closed doors, and then, following widespread public protests, in 10 open sessions. Verdicts were returned on January 13, 2001. Of the 19 men and women charged in connection with the Berlin conference, 10 were sentenced to prison terms ranging from four to 14 years, six were acquitted, and three others are awaiting verdicts, including a prominent cleric and writer who faces the death penalty. Shahla Lahiji received a sentence of three years and six months in prison for acting against national security by participating in the conference, plus an additional six months for propaganda against the Islamic system for speaking out about the dangers facing writers in Iran.

Renowned novelist and opposition activist Mamadali Mahmudov disappeared into the hands of agents of the Committee for National Security in Uzbekistan on February 19, 1999. His family knew nothing of his whereabouts until May, when he "reappeared" in prison. He was charged with threatening the president and the constitutional order, allegedly in connection with a series of explosions in Tashkent. He was tried along with five other men solely on the basis that they had copies of the banned newspaper Erk in their possession; all six were reportedly tortured and forced to sign self-incriminating statements, and some were coerced to declare their guilt on a government-sponsored national television program. In August 1999, he was sentenced to 14 years in prison.

This is the second time that Mahmudov, who gained literary fame in the Soviet Union in the 1980s for his novel Immortal Cliffs, has been jailed in now-independent Uzbekistan. In 1991, Mahmudov supported the political party Erk, founded by fellow writer Muhammed Salih, who is now in exile. When President Karimov won the election, he banned the party and launched a campaign of persecution against its proponents. Mahmudov was arrested in 1994 and sentenced to four years in prison on corruption charges that PEN and Amnesty International concluded were fabrications. International pressure led to his release under a presidential amnesty, but attacks on freedom of expression have continued in Uzbekistan, and PEN believes Mahmudov's current jail term is an extension of the campaign against Erk. The suspicious death of another Uzbek writer in detention in February 2001 has contributed to urgent fears for Mahmudov's health and safety in prison.

"This year's PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards shine a light on two areas of grave concern to PEN," Executive Director Michael Roberts stated in announcing the awards today in New York. "The imprisonment and torture of Mamadali Mahmudov are grim reminders that the collapse of the Soviet Union has not led to human rights improvements in Uzbekistan and neighboring Central Asian Republics. And in Iran, the prosecution of 19 of our colleagues for participating in an academic conference, in flagrant violation of universal guarantees of the right to freedom of expression, vividly illustrates the precarious situation of those who advocate reforms. Shahla Lahiji called attention to the particular dangers facing Iranian writers during the Berlin conference, and she now faces four years in prison."

This is the 15th year that the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards have honored international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression. The awards are an extension of PEN's year-round advocacy on behalf of the more than 700 writers and journalists who are currently threatened or in prison. Since they were established in 1987, the awards have brought international attention to the cases of 29 prominent writers, editors, publishers, and other literary figures, assisting them to gain release from prison, overcome financial crises, or pursue initiatives that further their work against censorship. Twenty-nine women and men have received the award; 18 of the 22 honorees who were in prison at the time they were honored were subsequently released. Two recipients of PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards gained their freedom in 2000: Dr. Flora Brovina, who received the award last April, was released from prison in Yugoslavia in November, as was Faraj Birqdar, a 1999 recipient of the prize.

The awards are underwritten by distinguished writer and PEN member Barbara Goldsmith. Candidates for the awards are nominated by International PEN and any of its 129 constituent PEN centers around the world and screened by an Advisory Board comprised of some of the most distinguished experts in the field. Inaugurated this year, the Advisory Board for the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards includes Carroll Bogert, Communications Director of Human Rights Watch; Ann Cooper, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists; Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation; Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Vice President of International PEN; and Aryeh Neier, President of the Open Society Institute.



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