Writers and artists unite to sign letter to Egypt president

Woody Allen (above), Margaret Atwood and Orhan Pamuk are among the artists and writers who signed the letter.
Woody Allen (above), Margaret Atwood and Orhan Pamuk are among the artists and writers who signed the letter.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Woody Allen, Margaret Atwood (above) and Orhan Pamuk are among the artists and writers who signed the letter.
Woody Allen, Margaret Atwood (above) and Orhan Pamuk are among the artists and writers who signed the letter. PHOTO: JEAN MALEK
Woody Allen, Margaret Atwood and Orhan Pamuk (above) are among the artists and writers who signed the letter.
Woody Allen, Margaret Atwood and Orhan Pamuk (above) are among the artists and writers who signed the letter.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • At least 120 prominent writers and artists from around the world have signed a letter sent to Egypt's president, urging him to release Ahmed Naji, an Egyptian author and journalist imprisoned for a novel deemed to have violated public morals.

The letter, sent by PEN America, a group that promotes free expression, amplifies the international pressure on Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi over his increasingly harsh repression of writers and journalists.

Mr el-Sissi's government has imprisoned an unprecedented number of journalists since he took power in 2013. His policy of intolerance towards views he dislikes recently aroused the ire of Egypt's union of journalists, which includes many who work for state-run media.

The PEN America letter was sent before the organisation's annual Literary Gala, set for Monday in New York, when Naji will be honoured in absentia with its annual Freedom To Write award.

Naji, 30, has been a vocal critic of corruption under the el-Sissi administration. He was charged last year with violating public morality provisions in the penal code for explicit references to sex and drug use in a novel, The Use Of Life, and sentenced in February to two years in prison.

In what clearly looked like a politically motivated prosecution, the courts ignored that Egyptian censors had approved the references. Moreover, critics of the morality provisions contend they violate protections of freedom of expression in Egypt's 2014 Constitution.

"Writing is not a crime," reads the letter to Mr el-Sissi, which was signed by a diverse list of literary and artistic figures including Woody Allen, Margaret Atwood, J.M. Coetzee, Jessica Hagedorn, David Henry Hwang and Orhan Pamuk.

The letter called the sentencing "emblematic of the Egyptian government's deeply troubling crackdown on free expression". The Egyptian authorities have not commented on the letter.

Ms Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN America, said the organisation had discussed the letter in advance with Naji's lawyer and members of his family for advice on "what the best approach would be".

The organisation has sent such letters before to other governments, seeking pardons for imprisoned writers. But in this case, Ms Nossel said, Naji did not want a pardon that would have let his conviction stand.

"He wanted an amendment to the law under which he had been convicted," she said.

PEN America has what Ms Nossel described as a good record in helping pressure governments into freeing imprisoned writers and artists who receive its annual award. Thirty-five of the 40 recipients who were in jail at the time they won were subsequently released.

"We can't say that it's direct causation, but we certainly believe the attention and pressure make a difference, and many award winners have told us that," she said.

PEN America's 2015 award winner, Khadija Ismayilova, an Azerbaijani investigative reporter who exposed government corruption, was sentenced to 71/2 years in prison on charges of abuse of power and tax evasion.

Although she is still imprisoned, the Azerbaijani authorities are feeling increased pressure over her case. Last Tuesday, Ismayilova was awarded the annual World Press Freedom Prize by Unesco, the United Nations' cultural heritage agency, in recognition of her "outstanding contribution to press freedom in difficult circumstances".

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 10, 2016, with the headline 'Writers and artists unite to sign letter to Egypt president'. Print Edition | Subscribe