Three members of the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA) who are facing immediate imprisonment in Iran talk with PEN Sydney president, Mark Isaacs

Mr Mark Isaacs‪: My name is Mark Isaacs, I’m a writer from Australia. I am the president of PEN Sydney, an associate of PEN International. I’ve been writing about conflict and displacement for close to a decade. My first book published was a whistleblower account of what happened in the Australian-run detention centre, or prison, for refugees on Nauru, which included Iranian refugees and since then I’ve traveled to Iran, Afghanistan and written a book on the peace movement in Afghanistan.

Mr Reza Khandan Mahabadi: I also send my greetings to you Mark and I do appreciate your attendance in this conversation. I am Reza Khandan. I’m a member of the Secretariats Board of the Iranian Writers’ Association (IWA). I am a writer, literature critic and I have had some research on popular culture. I have been a member of IWA for about 22 years, which is an independent organisation (I will explain its activities later). The IWA defends freedom of expression, writers’ rights and is against censorship.

Mr Baktash Abtin: I am happy too to participate in this meeting. I am Baktash Abtin. I’m a member of the Secretariats Board of IWA. I am a poet and filmmaker and have been a board member of IWA three times. I will talk about IWA’s activities later.

Mark Isaacs‪: Okay, “Salam-alaikom” to you both “khaily mokhlesim dadash” and it is a pleasure to be speaking to both of you, so thank you for giving me the opportunity. (Reza and Baktash were surprised by Mark’s Persian and laughed)

Reza Khandan Mahabadi: Since our legal case related to our activities in IWA, first I will provide an introduction about IWA. In this way, when we talk about our accusations, charges and sentences you will have a clear idea what we are talking about.

The IWA was established by some prominent writers against the censorship of the regime in 1968. The Shah’s regime introduced a law by which all the books must be over checked and approved before publishing. At the same time, the regime introduced some other measures in the print media arena and culture in general to impose more censorship.

In opposition to this, a number of progressive and well-known writers decided to publish a statement and this statement became the first step for establishing the IWA. The writers applied to register their organisation, but the Shah’s regime did not agree and about two years later some of their members were arrested. Finally, the regime put an end to the IWA’s activities after two years. In 1977, with the revolution in Iran, several IWA members became active and rejuvenated the organisation. These activities were continued until 1981 but again, the IWA’s activities were banned by the new regime. The activities were declared illegal. The IWA’s office was seized, several members were arrested and imprisoned, and once again IWA’s activities were banned.

In regards to IWA’s activities, I should explain that this is a professional and cultural organisation. On the professional front it defends the writer’s rights and on the cultural front it defends freedom of expression and is against censorship.

IWA was inactive for about a decade but despite many threats, it started to revitalise its activities. The pressure and danger were such that, during the Chain Political Murders in Iran in 1988, they murdered two IWA members. The IWA victims were four persons but the regime officially only admitted to the murder of two. This means the Intelligent Ministry admitted they killed just two of them. The IWA members have been under pressure all these years. In 1988, IWA members ran an election and elected a temporary board to restart its activities. Since then the Islamic Republic government has not allowed IWA to be active.

State censorship was increasing daily and it needed to be challenged. This meant Iranian writers had to do something. Since then IWA’s activities continued but of course “illegally”.  The regime put a lot of pressure on IWA members. The IWA has never been allowed to have an office and officially operate (except 2-3 years during the revolution). The IWA members have repeatedly been put under pressure and called upon by the intelligence and security organisations; four, five of its members are facing imprisonment or are in jail right now. Despite of all these pressures imposed on them by the state, a large number of writers remain members of IWA. For example, Ahmad Shamloo, who you might know. Despite all these pressures and intimidations, IWA is still active. IWA has a Facebook page and a channel on Telegram [social media mobile app which is popular in Iran]. IWA was publishing a periodical publication that was not allowed to continue. IWA issues statements on special occasions. These activities are still going on in this or another way.

I tried to paint a brief picture of the current situation of IWA and I hope I shed a bit of light on it. If Baktash thinks I missed something, I would be happy if he explains.

Baktash Abtin: It would be enough to add this, though Reza covered it: according to the Islamic Republic State, the IWA has always been an illegal organization. Therefore, its members, for their association with IWA, have been subjected to persecution and imprisonment and they will be under pressure. In addition, in Iran no media outlets are allowed to mention the IWA unless to offend, accuse or harass it. Now if you agree, please allow me to talk about Mr Reza Khandan Mahabadi, Mr Keyvan Bajan and my convictions, and also Mr Arash Ganji and other colleagues in IWA.

Mark Isaacs: Yes please, please.

Reza Khandan Mahabadi: Excuse me Baktash, before we address that, let me touch on an important issue. Is it okay?

Baktash Abtin: Yes please.

Reza Khandan Mahabadi: To address the importance of the IWA I have to mention that the censorship in Iran is so extensive that just yesterday Reporters Without Borders ranked Iran’s freedom of press 173 out of 180 countries around the word. The year before Iran’s ranking was 170. This year it dropped 3 places more. The IWA consider it a duty to be active to combat such a condition.

Mark Isaacs‪: Can you talk just a little bit more about the work both you do with the Iranian Writers Association but also your work more generally‪?

Baktash Abtin: I have published five poetry books and I have made more than ten feature and documentary films. But unfortunately for the past six years all my books have been banned from appearing in book exhibitions or bookstores. They did not allow the public to access my books nor my films to be screened. If the authorities were tipped off that a gathering was organised for me to read my poems or to screen my films, they would shoot the place down and, they do not allow the program to go ahead. This is not just limited to me, Mr Khandan who is here has the same situation.

Reza Khandan Mahabdi: I started my works in children’s literature about 40 years ago. At that time, 1978, I published a collection of children’s stories and a book on research and critique of children’s literature and several collections of children’s literature. I got arrested in 1981 for a while. I started a collection of writings called “Encyclopaedia of Fictions of People in Iran” with my colleague, Mr Ali Ashraf Darvishian in the late ‘80s, which was published in 19 volumes. I also published a collection of study and critique called “My Beloved Stories”, about selected short stories in Iran in the past 80 years, which was published in seven volumes. I also published a collection of stories called “The Solitaries” and of course many more essays and critiques like these. I said these to let you know I have been involved with censorship all these years. Like the other writers in Iran, I have been caught up with censorship without exception because the book must have permission from a government body for publication and this body sometimes changes the text or sometimes they do not give permission for publication. We have been caught up with censorship for many years, except for two to three years in 1977-1981 at the beginning of the revolution. All these years we have always been caught up with censorship, exclusion and elimination.

Mark Isaacs: Thank you for the information and I’m sorry to hear that you are under those kinds of restrictions. Can I ask what is exactly the opposition from the government to the IWA and the act of writing? Is it just the government or are there other groups involved that are in opposition to writers?

Reza Khandan Mahabdi: Specifically, and fundamentally, it is the government. There are no other groups, at least directly and publicly. This is the government that does not allow us to work. This is the government that we have to obtain permission for publishing books. The government, through organisations or bodies like the Intelligence Ministry, halts the activities of the IWA or any other independent organisation of writers. They summon us, they frame us with legal cases and imprison us. These are the problems we are facing directly. Of course, there are so called “cultural” newspapers like “Kayhan” that usually, with the posture of culture, attack the IWA or disseminate lies; or there are some writers who side with the government and occasionally attack the IWA, but fundamentally it is the government that has been against the IWA and does not allow us to work.

Mark Isaacs: Now I’d like to hear about your cases.

 

Baktash Abtin: The security forces attacked my house in April-May 2015 and confiscated more than 1000 of my poems. After a while, the same thing happened to Mr Reza Khandan Mahabdi and Keyvan Bajan. Later, they took us to the Culture and Media Court Subdivision 2 and we were charged. We were charged with printing illegal publications and propaganda against the state. I want to mention now that they opened two more cases against me and I was persecuted a lot. I do not include them here to prevent any mix up with this case. Our cases from the Culture and Media Court were transferred to the court in Evin prison. This time they charged us with other accusations including “propaganda against the state”, “assembly and collusion against national security”, “encouraging women to immorality or prostitution” and some baseless accusations. The latter was so ridiculous, even for the authorities, that it was removed from our cases. Then they referred us to the court and in the first trial the verdict was 6 years imprisonment. In the court we asked the judge to allow us to use our basic rights in order for our lawyer be present in the court and read the case because they did not pass on the case to our lawyer. But the judge aggressively, which is his usual attitude, did not accept our request; and since we insisted on our request, we refused to be charged officially and refused the judge to proceed with the trial, we were transferred to the Evin prison.

 

[In the Iranian courts, the judge reads the charges first and then the accused must sign the paper accepting they heard the charges. After that the court can start, but since their lawyers were not in the court, Reza, Baktash and Keyvan did not sign the paperwork. Therefore, they did not allow the judge to charge them officially. And the judge sent them directly to Evin prison.]

 

The judge then increased our bail amount from 100 million Toman to one billion Toman. Finally, in the court of appeal, Mr Khandan and my verdicts remained the same, 6 years imprisonments, but my colleague Mr Bazhan’s verdict was reduced to three years imprisonment. In March 2020, even though the Covid-19 virus was spreading all over the world, we were called to go prison to serve our sentences; because of Covid-19 we did not go to jail and now it’s unclear when they will come to arrest us and take us to prison. All this happened because we are members of the IWA, working for freedom of expression and against censorship. I do not have anything to add. If I missed something I would like Reza to cover it.

 

Reza Khandan Mahabadi: Just to highlight two points, when it is mentioned, five years ago they came to our homes and took our notes, handwriting, writings and films, it is important to clarify for Mark who they were and what organisation they belonged to. They were officials from the Ministry of Intelligence. The second point is we did not go to the Court of Culture and Media. This court gave the summons to the Ministry of Intelligence. They charged us after the interrogation in the Evin Security Court. The authorities in Iran label political prisoners as security prisoners.  It is necessary to know what their reasons were for those charges against us. I will explain the reasons one by one. The IWA has always issued statements according to its charter in regards to social events. The Iranian authorities used these statements to charge us for “propaganda against the state”. Ten members of IWA, two years ago, compiled a book about the history of IWA on its 50th anniversary. A small number of this book was published but the Ministry of Intelligence seized the books. This book was also used as evidence for “propaganda against the state”. For the mouthful charge of “assembly and collusion against national security”, the authorities imply the gathering of the IWA members on the graves of Ahmad Shamloo (renowned poet), Mohammad Mokhtari and Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh (two members of IWA who the intelligence service murdered in 1988). Their families, friends and IWA members have gathered every year on their graves to commemorate them, though the authorities have never allowed the gathering. These gatherings were used against us as “assembly and collusion against national security”. Another reason was the publishing of an internal publication. The IWA has an internal publication for its members. For the past 3-4 years we published around 200 copies. This publication was another reason for “propaganda against the state”. These so-called reasons to prove the charges, in fact, are not considered to incriminate anyone: to publish a magazine, to go to a graveyard to commemorate your fellow writers, and compiling a book. But the interrogators and judges use these accusations like “propaganda against the state” and “assembly and collusion against national security” to impose heavy penalties. Right now, by employing such accusations which have nothing to do with the reasons, they have imposed six years jail terms for Baktash and I and three years for Keyvan. I do not have any more explanations unless you have any other specific questions.

 

[Mark asked Reza and Baktash to explain a little bit more about the Chain Killings of the IWA members but the telephone line was disrupted and when it reconnected the conversation continued about mutual relationship between the IWA and the PEN centres in Australia and how PEN centres can support writers in Iran.]

 

Reza Khandan Mahabdi: Look, we the people in the literature sector all around the world should look after each other and I personally am surprised that the PEN associations in other countries either do not know about the IWA with its 50 years history or they know a little about us and the IWA’s activities. The priority for all the similar associations around the world is to look after each other. And about our legal cases, of course it is natural we believe these sentences are cruel. These sentences and accusations fundamentally have nothing to do with our activities. We expect PEN associations’ and public opinion’s pressure and campaigns will help revoke these sentences. We do not fear to pay a price for freedom of expression and we are aware that promoting freedom of expression in a place like Iran has a price to pay. But it does not mean we accept such an unjust verdict voluntarily. We expect all writers around the world to pay attention to this issue and to not allow writers to go to jail very easily.

 

Mark Isaacs‪: I could not agree more‪, I am grateful I have the opportunity to try and assist you.

 

Reza Khandan Mahabadi: And the question of how and in what ways to assist, I believe you have the knowledge of how to put pressure on the Iranian Government and its Judicial Ministry, which not only executes these sentences but cancels them too. This would be a victory for freedom of expression. This is to defend freedom of expression, not just three of us. This is to defend freedom and the right to have freedom of expression in this country and all around the world. In addition, we expect the relationship between the IWA and PEN associations in Australia and other places to continue, and to have more cooperation and to know each other better. I do not have anything else to add for now.

 

Baktash Abtin: My colleague’s words were good enough, but I’d like to add that freedom has never been gifted to anyone on a gold-wrapped plate. We ought to pay a heavy price for it. In countries like ours, where a dictatorship is ruling, while we are fighting for freedom of expression and against censorship, to obtain our natural rights seems more difficult. In a country like Iran, death is very cheap for intellectuals, freedom loving people and those who fight for freedom of expression. As my friend Reza Khandan said, we are not worried to face trials, to go to prison and endure sufferings, because we have made up our minds. While they ran the Chain Murders in 1988, or they tried to divert the full bus load of IWA members into a valley and portray it as an accident in 1996; if they have any opportunities, they will terminate us one by one. We, with complete knowledge of the risks, will emphasise our defined obligation, which is to fight for freedom of expression and against censorship. But we expect all our friends, writers, intellectuals and those who fight for freedom of expression around the world to support us, especially while they do not have a similar horrible situation like us. Your support is not for a couple of names, your support is about supporting a series of existences and making a stand, otherwise we would come and go. And, as I said, in third world countries, death is very cheap and suffering widely available. Therefore, we expect our friends to support us and our freedom. Thanks.

 

Mark Isaacs‪: Thank you guys‪, I really appreciate that you have given me the opportunity to speak with you‪, hear your stories‪. I do not think I have any more questions. I think you have covered everything I wanted to speak about, but I can assure you that Sydney PEN would like to engage in communication with you‪, with the IWA, and continue the dialogue and we will definitely support and promote a campaign in PEN International for your cases. It is a pleasure to speak with you‪.

 

Baktash Abtin: Thank you very much for your time to have such a constructive conversation.

 

Reza Khandan mahabadi: Thank you as well for this conversation. I hope we have conversations like this again and more often. Thanks for your time.

 

 

 

 

The Australian Centres of PEN International condemn charges against Maria Ressa and reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr

24 June 2020

The Australian Centres of PEN International condemn the charges recently brought in the Philippines against Maria Ressa and reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr of the Rappler news website. This is another instance of a ruthless leader, President Duterte, acting with impunity and silencing those who challenge his power.

On 15 June, Maria Ressa, co-founder, CEO, and executive editor of the Rappler news website,and one of the Philippines most prominent journalists, was found guilty of ‘cyber-libel’ along with with journalist, Reynaldo Santos Jr.

The charges were brought by businessman, Wilfredo Keng, in response to an article written by Santos Jr eight years ago which alleged criminal ties between Keng and a senior judge.

Judge Estacio-Montesa sentenced Ressa and Santos to a minimum of 6 months and 1 day to a maximum of 6 years in jail.

Dubious legal manipulations took place to bring this case to court, resulting in Ressa’s claim that ‘the law has been weaponised’.

PEN Melbourne, PEN Sydney, and PEN Perth stand wholeheartedly with Ressa and Santos, and call on the Philippines government to immediately dismiss all charges against them.

Support Maria Ressa HERE.

Background

The Philippines now ranks 136th out of 180 countries on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom Index.

Maria Ressa has been a powerful and courageous voice under Duterte’s radically unjust regime, and the judgement brought against her is a call out to all who fight for freedom of expression around the world.

Immediately following the hearing, Ressa said:

‘Freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen. If we can’t hold power to account, we can’t do anything . . . Are we going to lose freedom of the press? Will it be death by a thousand cuts, or are we going to hold the line so that we protect the rights that are enshrined in our constitution?’ The mission of Rappler, Ressa added, would remain unchanged. ‘We’re at the precipice. If we fall over we’re no longer a democracy’. Source.

David Kaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, said that the higher courts in the Philippines have a responsibility to reverse the verdict against Ms. Ressa, and that ‘the law used to convict Ms. Ressa, and the journalist who authored the article which led to their prosecution, is plainly inconsistent with the Philippines’ obligations under international law’. Mr Kaye warned that ‘any criminalisation of journalism, as took place here, serves only to defeat the ability of journalists to inform the public, to ensure open and rigorous public debate’. Source.

Philippines: Maria Ressa sentence a threat to media freedom

The sentence served today, 15 June, against journalist and writer Maria Ressa, is a severe blow to freedom of expression in the Philippines, said PEN International. The ruling “undermines the already dwindling democratic space in which free media and civil society operate,” said The Philippine PEN.

Maria Ressa was sentenced by the Manila Regional Court to a prison term of between six months to six years on charges of ‘cybercrime’ for an article published on the on-line news platform Rappler in 2012. The article alleged corruption between a businessman and a judge. Ressa was convicted alongside her colleague a former researcher and writer, Reynaldo Santos Jr, under the Cybercrimes Prevention Act that was enacted in September 2012, several months after the article was published, and applied retroactively. Both Ressa and Santos are free on bail awaiting appeal.

Maria Ressa is one of the Philippines’ most well-known free speech advocates, having set up Rappler with three other women journalists in 2012. It soon became a source of exposés of corruption and human rights abuses, including the execution of thousands of Filipinos in the war against drugs. Ressa faces other libel cases, as well as criminal investigations into allegedly illegal foreign ownership of her companies and investigations into tax returns. Altogether these charges, believed to be politically motivated, could lead to around 100 years in prison. Maria Ressa was named a TIME person of the year in 2018 and spoke at the Global Conference for Media Freedom organised by the Canadian and British Governments in the UK in 2019. She is the author of two books on the rise of terrorism in Southeast Asia.

“Maria Ressa is a brave journalist who has reported fearlessly from across Southeast Asia during tumultuous times,” writes Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

“To convict her on grounds of criminal libel years after the incident during a pandemic is nothing but another cowardly way the authorities are seeking to intimidate media freedom in the Philippines. That Maria and her former colleague Reynaldo can appeal is a matter of comfort. That she is being tried at all shows the distance the Philippines has travelled from the promise of democracy that was born with the end of the Martial Law. We were privileged when she spoke to the Assembly of Delegates at the PEN Congress in Manila in 2019, when she spoke eloquently about the need to remain vigilant in defending our freedoms. We are dismayed by the verdict against one of the truly courageous journalists of our time and urge the Philippines to change its law which threatens the media and take immediate steps to stop the persecution of Maria and her colleague Reynaldo.”

The Philippine PEN Centre released the following statement:

STATEMENT OF PHILIPPINE CHAPTER OF THE INTERNATIONAL PEN ON THE CONVICTION OF MARIA RESSA AND REYNALDO SANTOS JR. FOR LIBEL

The Philippine Center of PEN International expresses its gravest concern over the recent conviction of journalists Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr. of cyber libel for a 2012 article. Questions of constitutionality aside, this action further undermines the already dwindling democratic space in which free media and civil society operate.

This verdict cannot be seen as separate from the pattern of escalating threats and intimidation against Ms. Ressa and other media entities since 2016, for reportage that the present administration has found objectionable.

In solidarity with PEN International, the Philippine PEN stands by the principles of free expression and the unhampered flow of critical information.

We urge all citizens to uphold their right to free speech and equal protection under the law, and for all governments to protect these rights at all times.


For more information, please contact Sara Whyatt, Asia Programme Coordinator, at PEN International, Koops Mill Mews, Unit A, 162-164 Abbey St, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email: sara.whyatt@pen-international.org

Turkey: PEN and global organisations deplore block of Özgürüz and Can Dündar harassment

PEN International and 38 civil society organisations deplore the decision by a Turkish court to ban access to Germany-based online radio station Özgürüz (‘We Are Free’), which is headed by Can Dündar. We call on the Turkish authorities to reverse the decision, to stop the harassment of Dündar and to reform the country’s laws and judicial practice so that internet freedom can be guaranteed.

On 16 June, the Ankara 4th Criminal Court of the Peace banned access to the station and its website ozguruz20.org at the request of the Radio and Television Supreme Council (Radyo ve Televizyon Üst Kurulu, RTÜK), which apparently argued that the station was streaming radio illegally and reporting and streaming content against Turkey. RTÜK in an unofficial statement calls Dündar a ‘fugitive FETÖ suspect’ and refers to his trial over disclosing state documents and information and obtaining secret information for the purpose of espionage, although the latter charge was dismissed.

Dündar, a former editor-in-chief of Cumhuriyet newspaper, said in response: ‘The Government, especially in the recent period, has taken control of information sources like the Turkish Statistical Institute and a huge portion of the news media; however it could not oversee media organisations like Özgürüz Radyo streaming freely from exile.’ He also announced that the radio will continue to broadcast on ozguruz21.org.

Internet freedom in Turkey is under sustained attack from the government and the routine unlawful blocking of websites, where this is not strictly necessary and proportionate to a legitimate objective, encroaches on the already limited space for independent media and dissenting voices.

Dündar has been the victim of judicial harassment by the Turkish authorities since 2015, with several criminal procedures on-going. He was detained between 26 November 2015 and 26 February 2016, and has been living in exile in Germany since December 2016. Özgürüz has been repeatedly blocked by the Turkish authorities in the past, including in January 2017, before it had started publishing news.

Signed:

PEN International

Albanian PEN
ARTICLE 19
Articolo 21
Association of European Journalists
English PEN
Estonian PEN
European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
Freedom House
German PEN
Hungarian PEN
Independent Chinese PEN Centre
Index on Censorship
International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)
International Press Institute (IPI)
Irish PEN / Freedom to Write Campaign
Japan PEN Club
Latvia PEN
Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBCT)
PEN Canada
PEN Centre of Bosnia and Herzegovina
PEN Eritrea
PEN Lebanon
PEN Melbourne
PEN Norway
PEN Québec
PEN Suisse Romand
PEN Turkey
PEN Uganda
PEN Venezuela
PEN Vietnam
Romanian PEN
San Miguel PEN
Scottish PEN
South East Europe Media Organisation (SEEMO)
Swedish PEN
Swiss-German PEN
Trieste PEN
Wales PEN Cymru

PEN work in Turkey:

https://pen-international.org/news/turkey-pen-and-global-organisations-deplore-block-of-ozguruz-and-can-dundar-harassment

Azerbaijan: immediately release reporter and human rights defender Elchin Mammad

Elchin Mammad | Credit: Mammad’s Facebook page

PEN International is highly concerned about the arrest and continued detention of reporter, lawyer and human rights defender Elchin Mammad. On 30 March 2020, a few days after Mammad published a critical report on the human rights situation in Azerbaijan, police arrested him at his home, claiming to have found stolen jewellery in his office. The next day, Sumgait City Court remanded Mammad in custody for three months as a criminal suspect. PEN International believes his arrest and detention to be politically motivated.

‘Mammad has been the subject of harassment and intimidation by the authorities for his work since 2015. PEN International fears that he is again being persecuted for his critical reporting and human rights activities and calls for his immediate and unconditional release,’ said Carles Torner, Executive Director of PEN International.

Background

Elchin Mammad is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Yukselish Namine newspaper, which supports the activities of civil society organisations in Azerbaijan and publishes articles on human rights, freedom of speech and of the press, as well as information about citizens’ access to information, among other topics. Currently, it is published online only. Prior to his work for Yukselish Namine, Mammad worked as editor and correspondent for other newspapers.

In addition to his journalistic activities, Mammad is a human rights lawyer and the president of the Social Union of Legal Education of Sumgait Youth (SULESY), an organisation that provides free legal assistance to low income families and legal support for local NGOs, and undertakes legal capacity-building activities for civil society actors.

Mammad has faced harassment and intimidation by the authorities since 2015. He has repeatedly been under judicial or law enforcement investigation involving several alleged crimes. In this context, Mammad has been interrogated and has had his house and office searched on multiple occasions.

The persecution by the Azerbaijani authorities of Mammad fits a pattern in which critical voices are targeted with politically motivated arrests on spurious charges, extended pre-trial detention and custodial sentences. Prison conditions in Azerbaijan are very poor, a situation that is likely exacerbated by the measures taken in the context of fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Media in the country are under tight government control, and the majority of independent outlets have been forced to close or go into exile. Those still operating face police raids, financial pressures and prosecution of journalists and editors on trumped up charges.

The crackdown on dissent appears to have intensified recently, with the Coronavirus outbreak being used as an excuse to threaten opposition voices. On 19 March 2020, in his yearly address to the nation to mark the Novruz Bayrami holiday, President Aliyev promised “new rules” for the duration of the pandemic, threatening to clear the country of “traitors” and to “isolate the fifth column”.

For further details contact Laurens Hueting at PEN International, e-mail: laurens.hueting@pen-international.org

Iraqi interpreters face threat of death; Australian embassy in Baghdad does not accept visa applications

February 2020
The Hon. Scott Morrison MP
Prime Minister
Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet
PO Box 6500
Canberra ACT 2600
Australia

Re: A Humanitarian Promise

Dear Prime Minister,

Before we focus on the reason for this letter, the undersigned international translator and interpreter associations, together with our human rights partners, would like to express our profound sorrow at the loss of life and the devastation wrought by the bushfires in your country.

With that in mind, we write to alert you to another tragedy, namely, the fate of a small group of approximately 60 Iraqi interpreters who never know if they will see another day due to their service with the Australian Defence Force. The situation in Iraq is dangerous and volatile, with continuing state and paramilitary violence, and linguists face the ongoing threat of death. In fact, armed actors have identified them as high-priority targets who must be eliminated.

Your country has established a policy of granting protective visas to locally recruited employees, among them interpreters. On closer inspection, however, there is an insurmountable challenge regarding its implementation: the Australian embassy in Baghdad does not accept visa applications and refers applicants to the embassies in Amman, Jordan, or Beirut, Lebanon. As you can imagine, crossing war-torn and militia-held territories exposes them to physical risk as well as burdens them with prohibitive costs.

Thus, while Australia’s humanitarian commitment is laudable in spirit, the current travel requirement renders it unfeasible in practice. We urge your administration to set up a temporary visa processing unit in the Baghdad embassy so that visa applications can be submitted locally, without undue hardship, or find a viable alternate solution.

We thank you for your consideration and hope it will lead to a facilitated resettlement process for your country’s dedicated linguist allies.

Sincerely,

Maya Hess, President, Red T

Linda Fitchett, Chair, Conflict Zone Group, International Association of Conference Interpreters (AIIC)

Kevin Quirk, President, International Federation of Translators (FIT)

Aurora Humarán, President, International Association of Professional Translators and Interpreters (IAPTI)

Angela Sasso, President, Critical Link International (CLI)

Christopher Stone, President, World Association of Sign Language Interpreters (WASLI)

Maurizio Viezzi, President, Conférence Internationale Permanente d’Instituts Universitaires de Traducteurs et Interprètes (CIUTI)

Loredana Polezzi, President, and the Executive Council, International Association of Translation and Intercultural Studies (IATIS)

Lucio Bagnulo, Head of Translation, Language Resource Centre, International Secretariat, Amnesty International

Betsy Fisher, Director of Strategy, International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP)

Simona Škrabec, Chair, Translation & Linguistic Rights Committee, PEN International

Erika Gonzalez, President, Australian Institute of Interpreters and Translators Inc. (AUSIT)

Julie Judd, Chair, Australian Sign Language Interpreters’ Association (ASLIA)

Samantha Klintworth, National Director, Amnesty International Australia

Jason Scanes, CEO, Forsaken Fighters Australia Inc.

Ivana Bućko, President, European Forum of Sign Language Interpreters (EFSLI)

Daniela Perillo, President, European Legal Interpreters and Translators Association (EULITA)

Pascal Rillof, President, European Network for Public Service Interpreting and Translation (ENPSIT)

Cc:

The Hon. Peter Dutton MP, Minister for Home Affairs

The Hon. Linda Reynolds MP, Minister for Defence

The Hon. Alan Tudge MP, Minister for Population, Cities and Urban Infrastructure and

a/g Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs

Jess Flatters: We Need a Free Press

It couldn’t happen here? It just did.

 It took Annika Smethurst months to hear the sound of her doorbell without it triggering a rush of anxiety. She has become a household name since the AFP raided her home in June 2019, rifling through her personal belongings in relation to articles she wrote more than a year earlier. In those articles based on leaked documents, she wrote about an internal proposal to expand the powers of some intelligence agencies from spying outside Australia to spying on the general Australian public.

What is the case against Smethurst?

Smethurst has not yet been charged – a fact which has weighed on her heavily as she waits months, perhaps years, to learn of her fate. The law that the police relied upon in their raid of Smethurst’s home had, until then, never been used to obtain a warrant against a journalist. The law is section 79(3) of the Crimes Act 1914 (Cth) which prohibits unauthorised communication of official secrets. The government claims her article threatened the country’s national security.

What protections are in place?

We are the only democratic country to not have freedom of speech enshrined in its constitution. Until now, we have had to trust that our elected politicians will refrain from encroaching on the ‘implied freedom of political communication’ – the flimsy protection that is ‘implied’ in our constitution. The freedom is restricted: a burden upon the freedom is valid if it reasonably appropriate and adapted to serve a legitimate end. In November Smethurst’s lawyers argued that section 79(3) was used in an exercise of constitutional overreach; for the illegitimate purpose of protecting governments from embarrassment and government secrecy as an end in itself.

While criminal charges against government officials who leak state secrets are not new, the severe threats that face journalists for fulfilling their role in a democracy are. Sections 70 and 79 of the Crimes Act 1914 provide that government whistleblowers and journalists may be subject to up to two years’ imprisonment for disclosure and/or publication of certain government information. There are no public interest defences available for journalists.

Your Right to Know

Many Australians would have been surprised to see the likes of The Guardian, Newscorp and Nine band together as part of the Right to Know Campaign following the raids of Smethurst, the ABC, and the threat of raids against Ben Fordham. These diverse media organisations are among every Australian daily newspaper that published redacted front pages on the morning of Monday 21 October 2019. They are attempting to push back against the flood of national security laws that have been introduced since 9/11, which include harsh treatment of whistleblowers and journalists, and invasive data collection and retention laws where warrants can be sidestepped.

Smethurst’s case continues. While awaiting her fate, she has moved out of her home. Though the AFP agents who traipsed through her house are long gone, their invasive presence is felt in the ongoing uncertainty of her future. Australians should also be feeling the weight of what is increasingly becoming a surveillance state, where ‘national security’ is exploited as an untouchable catch-all for anything that may portray the government in a negative light.

Journalists should not be scared for their future liberty by the sound of a doorbell. But Australians should be scared for their future in a democracy that silences those who speak truth to power.

 

Jessica Flatters

 

A very beautiful postcard from Nedim Turfent, Turkish imprisoned writer

Recently we received this beautiful postcard from Nedim Turfent in response to cards sent to him by PEN Melbourne members.

October 2019 – Responding to the news that reporter, news editor and poet Nedim Türfent had his prison sentence upheld by Turkey’s Court of Cassation yesterday, Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, said:

‘We deplore the decision of Turkey’s Court of Cassation to uphold Nedim Türfent’s lengthy and unfair prison sentence, despite blatant violations of his right to a fair trial. It is another dark day in Nedim’s ongoing miscarriage of justice. The Turkish authorities must release him immediately and unconditionally, and urgently overturn his conviction.’

Nedim Türfent is serving an eight-year-and-nine- month prison sentence on trumped-up terrorism charges following an unfair trial, during which scores of witnesses said they had been tortured into testifying against him. He spent almost two years in solitary confinement in harrowing detention conditions. Determined to keep writing, he started composing poetry while detained.

https://pen-international.org/news/turkey-editor-nedim-turfent-prison-sentence-upheld

THE US PROSECUTION OF JULIAN ASSANGE IS AN ATTACK ON FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

RESOLUTION ON THE ABUSE OF THE US ESPIONAGE AND THE US PROSECUTION OF JULIAN ASSANGE AS AN ATTACK ON FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION

Proposed by Norwegian PEN, seconded by Swedish PEN and Danish PEN

PEN International expresses concern over the US government’s indictment against WikiLeaks founder and publisher Julian Assange and the threat his prosecution poses to press freedom.

In May 2019, Julian Assange was indicted by the US Justice Department on 17 counts of violating the US Espionage Act for his role in obtaining and publishing classified military and diplomatic documents in 2010. UN experts, free expression groups and scores of human rights lawyers have made it clear that this prosecution raises profound concerns about freedom of the press under the First Amendment to the US Constitution, and sends a dangerous signal to journalists and publishers worldwide. US prosecutors had already charged Julian Assange with one hacking-related count, which also includes a list of actions that fall under journalistic activities.

Through WikiLeaks, Julian Assange published classified material provided by whistleblower Chelsea Manning, then a military analyst in the US army, which revealed evidence of human rights violations and possiblewar crimes committed by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan. US prosecutors criticized Julian Assange for putting the identity of sources at risk by publishing unredacted materials. However, the indictment does not hinge on that fact but effectively opens the door to criminalizing activities that are vital to all investigative journalists who write about national security matters.

The US Espionage act of 1917 was designed to punish spies and traitors working with foreign governments during wartime. Using it to sentence Chelsea Manning to 35 years in prison was in itself a threat to critical publishing. The fact that Julian Assange now faces decades behind bars will cause a chilling effect on critical journalism seeking to expose the truth about crimes committed by governments. The fact that a government decides that a specific document is secret or confidential does not make it so, and on many occasions the public’s right to know overrides the state’s desire to keep matters secret, such as evidence of human rights violations or corruption.

In June 2019, the United Kingdom’s home secretary signed a US extradition order for Julian Assange. His extradition hearing has been set for February 2020.

The Assembly of Delegates of PEN International calls on the United States to:

  • Drop charges against WikiLeaks founder and publisher Julian Assange, who faces a lengthy prison sentence in the United States for obtaining and publishing newsworthy information. Espionage laws should not be used against journalists and publishers for disclosing information of public interest.

The Assembly of Delegates of PEN International further calls on the United Kingdom to:

  • Reject extraditing Julian Assange to the United States.