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Writers in Prison Committee

Daughter of Dido, the Tunisian Girl Blogger


The work of Scottish PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee(WIPC) is often more frustrating than satisfying. We campaign on behalf of imprisoned and persecuted writers, many of whom have been jailed for talking about their governments in much the same way that many of us rage about David Cameron’s old Etonian Cabinet or the bedroom tax or Tony Blair’s promotion of war.

And although as writers we believe fervently in words, all too often we feel we’re casting them to the winds. Few of the governments we write to reply or pay any attention to our criticism. In fact some of them just weigh the letters they receive on behalf of dissidents - they don’t actually read them.

So sometimes you think it’s hardly worth the effort of writing a letter and certainly not worth the postage and sometimes you feel as if nothing you do will ever change a thing. But once in a while something happens to remind you that even if you can’t change the world, you can reach other people in it and they in their turn can reach others and eventually, if enough of you keep reaching out, then change can come.

Or as chaos theory has it, the flapping of a butterfly’s wings can change the course of a hurricane.

This week, our event at the Edinburgh International Book Festival as part of the Amnesty International Imprisoned Writers series, chaired by Regi Claire, led to one of those moments when suddenly progress seems possible.

One of the tools we use in WIPC is campaign cards, which we send to the country’s embassy in the UK. I was trying to order them off the internet but was having problems with the firm’s website so called them. The operator patiently negotiated his way through my ranting and sorted it all out. Then he startled me by thanking us for the work we do. He thought it was important. When I asked him about his interest, he turned out to be an activist himself, campaigning on behalf of Tunisia.

It seemed like serendipity that it was that particular operator I’d spoken to and natural then, in considering what country to focus on for our events at this year’s Festival, to choose Tunisia. Here was where the Arab Spring kicked off, in December 2010, leading to the ousting of PresidentZine El Abidine Ben Aliand a new constitution for Tunisia. Here was where the inspiration came for a wave of protest in countries throughout the Middle East, in Egypt and Syria and Jordan and Iraq, among others.

But the progress made in Tunisia after the fall of Ben Ali was illusory. Although some banned books started being freely circulated, publishers and broadcasters have been jailed for blasphemy, many civilians have been tried in military courts for ‘defaming’ the military, and journalists have been subject to violent attacks by the police. The country is an important reminder that there can be no complacency where freedom of expression is concerned. Although things have progressed there, Tunisia is still in the lowest third in the world for it, only 126 out of 180 countries on the 2015 Index for Press Freedom.

 And, in June this summer, a 23 year old engineer called Seifeddine Rezgui strafed a beach in Sousse with shots from an AK47, killing 38 holidaymakers and wounding 39 more in the name of Islamic State.

Tunisia, where the government was already cracking down on free expression in the name of the fight against terrorism, looked like a good choice to highlight at the Edinburgh Festival.

Among the readings we chose for our event was one by a remarkable young woman called Lina Ben Mhenni, a teacher of linguistics at Tunis University, whose blog, A Tunisian Girl, was one of the few during Ben Ali’s regime to be published under the blogger’s real name rather than a pseudonym. Mhenni was one of the few bloggers to report when government forces massacred protesters in Kasserine and Regueb, two major cities in Tunisia’s heartlands. Her courage as a journalist is matched by her courage as a person - she has lupus and has had a kidney transplant, yet continues to battle for democracy in her country. She won the Deutsche Welle International Blog Award and El Mundo’s International Journalism Prize and was nominated for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize.

 In another of those serendipitous turn of events, a former civil servant living in Edinburgh saw her on the BBC news and admired her commitment and her bravery. Iain Allan decided to email her. ’I like the idea that you can use the internet to speak to people on the other side of the world,’ he says. He and his partner had been on holiday to Tunisia and seen a number of Tunisian films at the film house, but had no particular personal connection to the country. He just wanted to tell her what he thought. Lina replied to him though they didn’t have an extensive correspondence. Still, when he saw that Tunisia was to be featured in the Edinburgh Festival programme, he contacted her again to let her know. She in her turn sent a message to us at the Festival. From a problem in ordering cards off the internet to an international book festival… a fluttering of butterfly wings has started. 

This is Lina Ben Mhenni’s message:

I am so happy to see that a panel in the Edinburgh Festival is dedicated to my country, Tunisia. My happiness was even greater when I knew that the panel was organised by Amnesty International. I grew up amongst the militants of Amnesty as my father is one of the founders of its Tunisian section. Amnesty activities were banned in Tunisia and some of the meetings were held in our house. It is thanks to Amnesty that I became aware of the injustices in the world.
Well, it is true that the situation in Tunisia is relatively good in comparison to what is happening in other countries of the so-called Arab Spring but let me say that when it comes to Human Rights things did not really change. Until today people are jailed for their opinions, some people die after being tortured in arrest stations or prisons… Using the pretext of the fight against terrorism, security forces are back to their old repressive practices. This is very dangerous and would probably lead to the return of the police state.
Today we are talking about reconciliation without really paying attention to the establishment of a transitional justice process. Reconciliation in the way they want to do it is synonym (sic) to impunity. All the people who were involved with the regime of Ben Ali will benefit from it. It is true that we drafted a new constitution applauded by the entire world but what is the benefit behind having a good constitution which is just ink on paper? It should be put into practice.
Well, I won’t take much more of your time and end my message by inviting you to visit my country. Today we need your support more than ever. It is true that tourists lost their lives in my country but what happened in Tunisia happens everywhere. The majority of Tunisians are really sorry for the big human losses and we are trying our best to get rid of terrorism but we need your support. Again my condolences to the families of the victims and I hope to see you in Tunisia.
    Lina Ben Mhenni

I am the daughter of Dido, Kahina, Aziza Othmana, Saida Manoubia and my mom who gave birth twice and I won’t kneel down.

The Human Cost

I'm fortunate. I've actually met the person I campaign for, Ragip Zarakolu, a Turkish publisher who has been hounded for over 30 years by his country's legal authorities. This is unusual in the world of Scottish PEN's Writers in Prison Committee (WIPC). We work on behalf of writers who have been persecuted, threatened or imprisoned for speaking their minds, but we rarely meet them.
I met Ragip in 2005, when I went to Istanbul in a group of international observers of one of his trials. There have been many over the years. In fact in all the time I've known him, there has only been one short period of just over a month when he wasn't on trial for something. That followed a surreal verdict when the writer who had written a novel about the Kurdish minority was convicted of breaching the notorious Article 31 of the Turkish consitution; Ragip, the publisher, was found to be innocent. The decision made one wonder what the Turkish version of Mr Bumble's 'the law is a ass,' would be.
That first trip to Istanbul taught me a lot about the cost of free speech. Ragip had been in prison in the 1970s; his late wife Ayse Nur had been there a decade later, when she was tortured for giving a job to a dissident student. The police interrogated her to find out where he was living but she refused to reveal his hiding place—which was in the home of her mother.
Over the years, the couple continued to publish books upholding the rights of the Kurds or discussing the genocide of 1915, when over a million ethnic Armenians were slaughtered by the Ottoman government. The Zarakolus didn't make money from it (Turkey doesn't have the big glossy publishing industry that we have in this country) but they believed in what they were doing. Their publishing house was torched and they were under constant surveillance, but still they carried on. After Ayse died of cancer in 2002, Ragip continued the work himself.
It was the night before the trial in 2005 that I really saw at first hand how much pressure the judicial harassment by his country was placing on him. Now married to his second wife, Katrin Holle, he lived across the Bosphorus Bridge on the Asian side of the city. In the mornings, the bridge was jam-packed with traffic and it could take as long as two hours to cross to the European side. Rather than put himself through that, he and his wife stayed in a hotel in the city centre. He had high blood pressure and was afraid that the stress of getting to court on time would send it soaring.
Ever since, I have been anxious about the human cost of freedom of expression. Being able to speak our minds is something we take for granted in this country, despite the encroachments into our rights that are constantly being proposed. For the most part, though, we can pontificate down the pub to our heart's content, without worrying that a government agent is listening in at the next table, as happens in Burma. WIPC hosted an event in late 2012 for a group of Burmese poets whose anthology, Bones Will Crow, had just been published. Several of the poets who read that night had left their native country, unable to deal with the intrusion into their private lives. When you close down ordinary conversation you're annexing people's minds, their souls.
That's why it's so important to campaign for freedom of expression. From that basic freedom to think and speak, all others flow. Some of the writers we support think it's important enough to place their own lives at risk for it. Lydia Cacho, for example, exposed a paedophile ring that went right to the heart of the Mexican Establishment in her 2003 book, Los Demonios del Edén. Cacho has been raped for her work on behalf of battered women, kidnapped and driven 900 miles across country, threatened with death. In a country which has seen 28 journalists murdered since 2002, and many more disappeared, she is no longer safe and now moves around Europe, unable to live for any length of time in her home country.
It's not just the writers themselves who suffer. Those around them often end up being persecuted. When Liu Xiaobo was imprisoned on Christmas Day, 2009, after signing a document calling for human rights to be observed in China, his wife Liu Xia, was put under house arrest and deprived of access to a computer. She has recently been released briefly from her isolation to attend the trial of her brother, Liu Hui, charged with a £318000 fraud which is believed to be politically motivated. As she was driven from the court, Liu Xia shouted, 'I'm not free,' from the car window to reporters and diplomats. 'When they tell you I'm free, tell them I'm not.'
Her husband was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010, but was unable to attend the ceremony and will be in jail till 2020. Will her house arrest be as long? The powerful poems Liu Xiaobo has written are testament to the profound love between them and the punishment that Liu Xia too is undergoing.
There's always a human cost and it is that which drives the work of Scottish PEN and WIPC. We care about the people we campaign for. Last year Ragip Zarakolu was arrested, after years of unfinished court cases, and taken to a high security prison, where he was incarcerated with terrorists and drug dealers. At first he wasn't even allowed books, though after he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize he became a minor celebrity inside and was able to communicate more with the outside world. He sent me a beautiful letter asking for Scottish poems as he wished to translate them into Turkish. Naturally one of the books I sent him was a collection by our own egalitarian poet, Robert Burns.
The Turkish government and all those around the world who persecute their own citizens would do well to take note of his words:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.
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