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International PEN honours dissident writers

The Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) of International PEN is celebrating 50 years of defending freedom of expression all over the world with a year-long campaign, highlighting 50 emblematic cases, showing where and how WiPC has carried out its work. For each year between 1960 and 2009, one writer has been chosen.

The campaign, "Because Writers Speak Their Minds", includes the writer, playwright and former president of the Czech Republic, Vaclav Havel, who was imprisoned in a Communist jail in the late 1970s. Havel is now working to free Chinese dissident writer Liu Xiaobo, sentenced on 25 December to 11 years for demanding political reform, greater human rights and an end to one-party rule in China. Xiaobo is the only one of the 50 cases currently in prison.

Other writers featured include the Albanian poet Musine Kokalari who was serving a 20-year sentence for being an "enemy of the state" when WiPC was formed in 1960. Another, Vietnamese poet Nguyen Chi Thien, spent close to 27 years in prison for his "politically irreverent poems." More recent writers like Anna Politkovskaya, Ken Saro-Wiwa and Salman Rushdie are also honoured.

"The 50th anniversary is an opportunity to honour (and in some cases remember) writers on whose behalf we have written letters, lobbied governments, made great noises in public places and quiet agitations in diplomatic channels. But it is also the springboard for ongoing work in the defence of freedom of expression," said WiPC.

The International PEN festival of world literature, Free the Word! (London, 14-18 April), will mark the anniversary with several events. The first 50th anniversary mini-campaign is about Iran, and will be launched with a coalition of other freedom of expression organisations in mid-February.

WiPC's current case list contains the names of almost 900 writers, editors, journalists and Internet writers.

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