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Meet the five poets paying a heavy price for their verses

Pencils, representing free expression, are seen near candles as people gather to pay tribute to victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks (Nantes, January 2015)
Pencils, representing free expression, are seen near candles as people gather to pay tribute to victims of the Charlie Hebdo attacks (Nantes, January 2015)

REUTERS/Stephane Mahe

This statement was originally published on pen-international.org on 16 March 2015.

On 21 March 2015, while people across the globe celebrate World Poetry Day, PEN will be directing public attention to the imprisonment, murder and general harassment of poets, writers and journalists around the world.

We will be focusing on five cases that highlight the threats faced by writers who criticise those in power: Aron Atabek (Kazakhstan), Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami (Qatar), Enoh Meyomesse (Cameroon), Susana Chávez Castillo (Mexico) and Liu Xia (China). These cases are already well-known to PEN members, who have been campaigning on their behalf for years. Sadly, there has been little significant progress made towards justice in any of these cases.

On World Poetry Day 2015, please take action on behalf of Aron Atabek, Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, Enoh Meyomesse, Liu Xia and the murdered writers of Mexico: you can do this in a number of ways. Below, you will find more information about our focus cases and some suggested calls to make to the relevant authorities. We hope that you will also promote these cases on social media and with your national press.


Aron Atabek - Kazakhstan

Aron Atabek, Kazakhstan, is a poet, journalist and social activist. He has written several books of poetry and prose inspired by Tengriist spirituality and was the founder, in 1992, of the monthly newspaper Khak (The Truth). Atabek was awarded the literary 'Almas Kylysh' prize in 2004 and the Freedom to Create 'imprisoned' prize in 2010.

Atabek has been in prison since 2007 and has spent much of his incarceration in solitary confinement. In December 2012, following the online publication of The Heart of Eurasia, a critique of President Nursultan Nazarbayev's regime (written in prison by Atabek and smuggled out for publication), the poet was sentenced to spend two years in solitary confinement at a high security prison in Arkalyk.

Whilst in solitary detention, Atabek was kept in extremely harsh conditions: he was denied access to natural light, communication with other prisoners, writing materials and telephone calls; family visits were severely restricted, resulting in very few successful visits between 2010 and the current date; he was kept under constant video surveillance.

My Throat Will Die – by Aron Atabek My throat, unable to speak, will die For the sounds of my homeland. My ancestors’ patter will vanish Like water into sand. I am a storyteller of immortality In Semitic and Etruscan tongues; I am the dust of Turkic dialects Writing in Russian. Many lives’ twisted fates Are lost inside me, mourning, And I myself am a naked tangle of nerves Pulsating with verses. Translated by Niall McDevitt and Alfia Nakipbekova and published in the literary magazine, Ambit.

PEN centres campaigned vigorously to have Atabek released from solitary confinement and moved to a prison within reasonable visiting distance for his family. In early October 2013, Atabek's family received an anonymous telephone call informing them that the poet was to be transferred from Arkalyk to Karazhal Prison in the Kargandy region (over 1,000km from his family). The authorities refused to confirm or deny this news and Atabek's family knew nothing of the poet's whereabouts until several weeks later when his location was confirmed by a local human rights organisation. Askar Aidarkhan (Atabek's son) has told PEN that communications with his father are still very restricted.

Atabek's solitary confinement and the harsh conditions in which he has been held qualify as a cruel and inhuman punishment that violates the prohibition on torture and other ill-treatment under international human rights standards and runs contrary to the recommendations made by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture. By denying Atabek access to visits from his family and to regular correspondence with them, Kazakhstan is also violating the UN's Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners.

Shortly before PEN International's World Congress in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (September 2014), a small PEN delegation travelled to Kazakhstan where they protested Atabek's ill treatment at a meeting with Head of the Executive Office of the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan. Take action here.


Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami - Qatar

Mohammed Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, Qatar, is a well-known poet in the Gulf, and is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence for 'criticizing the ruler' and 'inciting the overthrow of the ruling system.' Al-Ajami was a literature student at Cairo University in 2010 when he recited a poem (in his apartment, among friends) in which he criticised the former Amir Sheikh Hamad Al Thani.

The poem was in response to a poem by a fellow poet, but one of the students in the apartment recorded al-Ajami and uploaded the reading on YouTube. According to al-Ajami's lawyer, Dr. Najeeb al-Nauimi, a former justice minister in Qatar, the poem was spoken in a private setting and thus violated no law. Another of al-Ajami's poems — 'Tunisian Jasmine' — which expressed support for the 2011 uprising in Tunisia and criticised other Arab governments was circulated on the internet.

Al-Ajami was arrested on 16 November 2011 after responding to a summons, and was detained incommunicado for several months. His trial, which did not meet international standards of fairness, was repeatedly postponed. Al-Ajami was eventually sentenced to life imprisonment after a trial – held in secret – where the investigating judge, a non-Qatari, was also the chief judge. The Amir appoints all judges on recommendation from the Supreme Judicial Council: seventy-five percent of judges are foreign nationals, dependent on residency permits, a situation which violates international standards on the independence of the judiciary. On 25 February 2013, Al-Ajami's sentence was reduced to 15 years. Following the court's latest ruling, Al-Ajami's only legal recourse is to be pardoned by the Amir.

Al-Ajami is detained in Doha's Central Prison, where he has been held in solitary confinement since his arrest. On 23 October 2013, representatives from PEN American Center were prevented from visiting him despite having been told their visit had been approved. For more details read 'Qatar: A poet sits in a desert cell for reciting his work at home' by Joanne Leedom Ackerman. Al-Ajami is an honorary member of PEN American Center and German PEN. PEN International considers Al-Ajami to be imprisoned in violation of his right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and calls for his immediate and unconditional release. Take action here.


Enoh Meyomesse - Cameroon

Enoh Meyomesse, Cameroon, is a well-known poet. He was sentenced to seven years in prison in December 2012 for supposed complicity in the theft and illegal sale of gold; he had already spent 13 months in prison. PEN believes the charges to be politically motivated and is calling for his immediate and unconditional release.

The Placard – by Enoh Meyomesse it hung around my neck the damned placard it hung heavily and the television cameras and the gawping bystanders and the gazing eyes of people across the whole world were reading my name across it dumbfoundedit straddled my neck the damned placard it straddled it heavilythey’d stuck it there they’d hung it there they’d tied it there and under my name there was inscribed an abomination oh supreme humiliation Translated by Dick Jones

According to a recent letter to President Biya written by Meyomesse, his appeal hearing has been postponed 21 times since his case was first referred to a civil court for appeal in April 2013, most recently on 19 February 2014. In April 2013, PEN International wrote to the administrator of Kongengui Prison, where he is currently being held, to express concern at reports that Meyomesse was being prevented from writing in prison in April 2013.

Despite all obstacles, Meyomesse continues to publish his works. In November 2012 Meyomesse self-published a powerful collection of poetry written whilst in detention, Poème carcéral: Poésie du pénitencier de Kondengui (Les Editions de Kamerun, November 2012). PEN Centres have been integral to the dissemination of his most recent works; in late 2013 English PEN published their crowd-sourced translation of Poème Carcéral, while Austrian PEN published a German translation of his poems. To read Meyomesse's poetry click here.

Meyomesse recently featured in the artist Ai Wei Wei's latest exhibition.

Enoh Meyomesse was the recipient of the 2012 Oxfam Novib/PEN Free Expression Award. Take action here.


Susana Chávez Castillo - Mexico

Susana Chávez Castillo, Mexico, a prominent poet and women's rights advocate, was found murdered in the border town of Ciudad Juárez on 6 January 2011. She had been strangled and had had one of her hands cut off; her body was only identified five days later.



Chávez had been highly vocal in calling for justice for the hundreds of women killed in the Juárez area since the early 1990s, both as an activist and through her writings; she took part in numerous poetry readings which she dedicated to the murdered women. Her poem 'Sangre Nuestra' (Our Blood) was written from the perspective of a victim.

Throughout the course of their investigation, the authorities denied that Chávez' murder was related in any way to her activism and poetry, or to organised crime, despite the recent murder and harassment of numerous other local rights defenders.

Sangre Nuestra – by Susana Chávez Castillo Blood of my own, blood of sunrise, blood of a broken moon, blood of silence, of dead rock, of a woman in bed jumping into nothingness, Open to the madness. Blood clear and definite, fertile seed, Blood the unbelievable journey, Blood as its own liberation, Blood, river of my songs, Sea of my abyss. Blood, painful moment of my birth, Nourished by my last appearance.

The Chihuahua state attorney general's office alleged that she was killed by three teenage boys she had met while out drinking, and on 3 April 2013, a court in Ciudad Juárez sentenced three juveniles to 15 years in prison for her murder. According to reports, one of her alleged killers was released on 22 July 2013 after a court found that there was insufficient evidence to support the claim that he was directly involved in Chávez' murder.

Despite a conviction for Chávez' killing, in the vast majority of murders of writers and journalists, impunity reigns. Mexico remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to exercise one's right to freedom of expression. At least 67 print and internet journalists, bloggers and writers have been murdered in the country since 2004. Very few – if any – of these murders have been satisfactorily resolved. At least 10 other print journalists have disappeared since in Mexico in the last decade; their fate remains unknown Few if any of these crimes have been solved.

In March 2013, PEN International and Guadalajara PEN submitted a shadow report on violence and impunity in Mexico to the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights as part of the United Nations' Universal Periodic Review of Mexico's human rights record. In its report, PEN called for full and transparent federal-level investigations into the murder and disappearance of journalists and writers as well as investigations into all allegations of attacks carried out by government entities.

In 2012, PEN International published the anthology Write Against Impunity, a literary protest highlighting the escalating violence against journalists, writers and bloggers in Latin America – in particular Mexico, Honduras and Brazil – and the impunity enjoyed by those who commit these crimes. A number of contributors to the anthology dedicated poems to Chávez' memory, including the poem 'Tongue', by Carmen Boullosa, which can be found on pages 51-54, and Claribel Alegría's poem 'Impunity', found on pages 55-58. Take action here.


Liu Xia - China

Liu Xia, China, is a poet, artist, and founding member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre. She has been held in her Beijing apartment without access to phones, Internet, doctors of her choice, or visitors since her husband, imprisoned poet Liu Xiaobo, was named the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010.

There are reports that Liu Xia's mental and physical health are suffering due to her detention.

On 3 December 2013, Hong-Kong based activist Zeng Jinyan posted on her blog three requests made to the Chinese government by Liu Xia. Zeng Jinyan has not disclosed how she received the information. These requests were as follows: (1) “I request the right to consult a doctor freely;” (2) “I request that Liu Xiaobo and I are allowed the right to read the correspondence we write to each other;” (3) “I request the right to work and receive an income.”

One Bird after Another – by Liu Xia We saw it A little reflection left on the glass It had been printed there for a long time without leaving… Every year on July 15 of the lunar calendar The river would be covered with water lanterns But they could not call back your soul… The train heading for the concentration camp Sobbingly ran over my body But I could not hold your hand… Translation by Yu Zhang Edited by Bonny Cassidy

According to Zeng Jinyan, Liu Xia is not willing to see a police-appointed doctor for fear of being interned in a psychiatric hospital, a punishment sometimes used by the Chinese authorities to silence human rights defenders. Regarding her second request, Liu Xia and Liu Xiaobo have not been permitted to read the letters they send to each other.

In January 2014 Liu Xia was rushed to hospital in Beijing after suffering myocardial ischemia (lack of blood flow to the heart). She returned for further tests on 8 February 2014 but was discharged the following day and is said to be in need of specialist medical care. Her phone line was reconnected after her initial hospitalisation to enable her to call for help in case of emergency.

PEN International believes that the ongoing, extra-judicial house arrest of Liu Xia is a form of punishment for the human rights work carried out by her husband, Liu Xiaobo, and is extremely concerned for her physical and psychological integrity.

You can view writings by Liu Xia here. Take action here.

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