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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Jailed Writers Look to PEN to Fight Oppression

Jailed Writers Look to PEN to Fight Oppression

Jailed Writers Look to PEN to Fight Oppression

NEW YORK (AP) - Maina Wa Kinyatti remembers the day he was dragged from his

solitary cell in a Kenyan jail to the prison warden's office. The warden, baffled

and furious, showed him piles of letters and postcards from around the world, calling

for Kinyatti's release.

"He was so angry, picking up letters, asking why these people cared about me,"

said the soft-spoken Kinyatti, a prominent historian who spent six years in jail

for sedition after his teaching and writing angered the Kenyan government.

"To see these letters, so many of them"-he paused and wiped his eyes-"It

gave me hope. It gave me hope that someone was fighting for my freedom."

Kinyatti's cause had been adopted by the international literary organization Pen,

which waged a letter-writing campaign on his behalf. Over the years, the group has

aided hundreds of writers around the world when their trade lands them in trouble.

Pen-whose name stands for Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Editors, and Novelists-has

its headquarters in London. The non-profit group, with a worldwide membership of

10,000 elected members, sponsors a variety of literary events, awards and anti-censorship

campaigns, but many members believe its work on behalf of imprisoned and imperiled

writers is especially vital.

At Pen's New York offices in a sunny Soho loft, Siobhan Dowd, administrator of the

group's Freedom to Write Committee, leafed through case sheets-an Egyptian novelist

accused of blasphemy, a South Korean poet sentenced to life in prison under national

security laws.

"In many parts of the world, writing is a dangerous profession-very, very dangerous,"

she said.

Pen's principal tactic on behalf of imprisoned writers is to send cables to the governments

involved. About 200 such messages were sent last year, Dowd said. The cables are

generally nonconfrontational in tone, expressing concern and citing international

law.

Pen members, many of them internationally known authors, also write letters directly

to jailed writers. Even though many do not get through, they tend to get governments'

attention. When Kenyatti was in prison, Norman Mailer was among those who wrote to

him.

"When someone so famous gets involved, I think it makes the authorities afraid,"

said Kinyatti's wife, Mumbi Wa Maina.

Pen works closely with human rights groups, sometimes coordinating strategies with

them. Amnesty International also worked on Kinyatti's behalf, for example, and the

Committee to Protect Journalists takes on some of the same cases as Pen, those involving

reporters and editors.

Some of the writers Pen assists are well-known at home but have little audience outside

their own countries. The group will sometimes try to raise a writer's profile by

arranging translations of their work.

While dissident poet Irina Ratushinskaya was in prison in the former Soviet Union,

Pen helped arrange the publication in French and English of a collection of her poems,

increasing her visibility. Ratushinskaya, freed in 1986 after three years in prison,

credited western pressure for her release.

More recently, Pen helped arrange the publication in English of a novel by Vietnamese

writer Duong Thu Huong, who was jailed for seven months last year. The book is due

out early next year from William Morrow and Co. Pen hoped wider readership in the

west would discourage the Vietnamese government from jailing Duong Thu Huong again.

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