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Dawit Isaak death rumours cast dark cloud over Day of the Imprisoned Writer

Free expression advocates around the world showed solidarity with jailed and murdered writers on 15 November, International PEN's annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer.

Events included readings, speeches, performances and demonstrations held to raise awareness of prisoners who have been jailed for their writings, statements or activism. Among the most pressing cases featured by PEN Canada was that of Dawit Isaak, the co-founder of "Setit," Eritrea's first independent newspaper, who has been held without charges in Eritrea for 10 years now. Rumours circulating in social and online media allege Isaak died in prison on 27 October, according to IFEX members who launched a joint appeal to call for the authorities to reveal his whereabouts.

Some of the other political prisoners highlighted by the Writers in Prison Committee (WiPC) PEN International included Tashi Rabten, a Tibetan poet and essayist jailed for writing articles about the brutal suppression of Tibetan independence protests; Abdul-Jalil Al-Singace, a human rights blogger sentenced to life in Bahrain for his role in pro-democracy protests; and Reeyot Alemu, an Ethiopian columnist who has been cut off from all contacts, including lawyers, but is believed to be detained under repressive antiterrorism laws.

The day also honoured the 33 writers and journalists killed in the past year, almost half of who were murdered in Mexico and Pakistan alone. A Mexican poet and human rights activist, Susana Chavez, was also one of WiPC feature cases. She was murdered on 6 January this year, says WiPC, "in an attack many have claimed was the result of her writing and activism."

In an event organised by English PEN, Actors for Human Rights brought to life the comedic writings of persecuted writers, including Turkish playwright Ali Taygun and Burmese comedian Zarganar.

Turkish PEN meanwhile held a press conference with journalists and publishers who drew attention to the recent arrests of professor Ragip Zarakolu and publisher Busra Ersanli. WiPC also called attention to the cases of Nadim Sener and Ahmet Shik, who were detained for writing books and articles that named police and other high level individuals connected to the Ergenekon case.

PEN Canada invited pedestrians in Toronto to have their pictures taken with large portraits of Isaak and Nasrin Sotoudeh and write to the relevant authorities to demand their release. Sotoudeh is an Iranian human rights lawyer and journalist serving a six-year journalist in the notorious Evin prison for "propaganda against the regime."

Earlier this week, 31 IFEX organisations sent a letter to Eritrea's president Issayas Afewerki, expressing deep concern about rumours of Isaak's death. The organisations, led by the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), requested information on Isaak's location (which is currently unclear) and health condition, called on authorities to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Isaak and demanded that the journalist be immediately released if he is still alive.

RSF additionally called on the European Union and Swedish government to demand information on the whereabouts and health condition of Isaak, who has dual Eritrean and Swedish nationality. "If they cannot get a response or if it is confirmed that Dawit died in detention, all relations between Eritrea and Sweden and the EU will have to be reviewed," RSF said in a statement.

Related stories on
  • Thirty-one IFEX members call on authorities to disclose whereabouts of journalist Dawit Isaak

    After hearing rumours of the death of Dawit Isaak, an Swedish-Eritrean journalist held without charge for ten years, 31 members of IFEX are asking President Isaias Afewerki to confirm that he is still alive and if so, to release him from prison.

  • RSF concerned over fate of Dawit Isaac

    Unconfirmed reports that Isaac has died in detention have been circulating since 27 October. On the basis of the information available, RSF does not think he has died, but it does not know where the authorities are holding him.

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