I have the great pleasure and the great honour to be co-organiser and co-host for a human rights poetry event “Words for the Silenced” on 4 March 2019, 7 pm at the Poetry Cafe, 22 Betterton Street, London WC2H 9BX. With this post, I want to invite everyone to this event. I also want to introduce the imprisoned writers on whom this event will focus. I hope that you will continue to read and share the stories of these writers also after the event.
“Word for the Silenced” is an event which is organised in partnership of Amnesty International and Exiled Writers Ink. Exiled Writers Ink is an organisation in London which hosts a monthly Exiled Lit Cafe at the Poetry Cafe (first Monday each months). Exiled Writers Ink
brings together writers from repressive regimes and war-torn situations and it equally embraces migrants and exiles. Providing a space for writers to be heard. Exiled Writers Ink develops and promotes the creative literary expression of refugees, migrants and exiles, encourages cross-cultural dialogue and advocates human rights through literature and literary activism.
As mentioned in my last post, they organised last year in February an event which focused on writings about and from those imprisoned in Iran. I was involved in this event and spoke about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, Narges Mohammadi, Nasim Bagheri and Mahvash Sabet Shariari and read a selection of their poems.
I approached Catherine Temma-Davidson from Exiled Writer Ink in summer last year and asked her whether she would be interested in an event about writers who write in Arabic and who are in prison for their writing, in particular Ahmed Mansoor. She was delighted and we started organising.
On Monday we will have an evening which focuses on four writers / activists who are in prison for their writings: Ahmed Mansoor (UAE), Ashraf Fayadh (Saudi Arabia), Galal El-Behairy (Egypt) and Nedim Türfent (Turkey). Finally Amir Darwish, a Syrian writer who lives in London, will read from his new book “From Aleppo Without Love”.
I. Ahmed Mansoor (UAE)
If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know Ahmed Mansoor, because I have written four blog posts about him over the last years.
Ahmed Mansoor is a prominent blogger and human rights activist. He is an engineer and a member of several human rights organisations and he is a poet. He published a collection of poetry in Arabic in 2006. Some of his poems were translated into English.
On 20 March 2017 Ahmed Mansoor was arrested. He spent a long time in solitary confinement and his whereabouts are unclear. The International Centre for Justice and Human Rights (ICJHR) tweeted on the 21 December 2018 that they learned that Ahmed Mansoor is still in solitary confinement at Al Wathba prison since his arrest. There are allegations that he was tortured.
On 29 May 2018 Ahmed Mansoor was sentenced to 10 years in prison for false information on social media which “insulted the status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols” and “incited hatred and sectarian feelings”. In addition the reports claim that he tried to “damage the relationship of UAE with its neighbours” by publishing false information. The court of appeal decided on 31 December 2018 to uphold the sentence which is now final.
If you want to know more about Ahmed Mansoor you can have a look at one of my previous posts about him, in particular “Arrested, Sentenced, Not Released – Human Rights Defender in the United Arab Emirates ” and “Ahmed Mansoor – 10 years in prison for defending human rights“.
Ahmed Mansoor was the reason, why I contacted Catherine in summer and I am excited about the speakers we will have. Manu Luksch will start our event. She is currently working on a documentary on him (titled ‘The Million Dollar Dissident’). She will speak about her project and we will see an excerpt of her film. I am delighted that the journalist Bill Law and the human rights activist Drewery Dyke will speak about their friend Ahmed Mansoor and will read some of his poems. Finally poet and artist Albert Pellicer will read a poem he wrote in support of Ahmed Mansoor.
II. Ashraf Fayadh (Saudi Arabia)
Ashraf Fayadh is a Palestinian poet who was born in Saudi Arabia.
On 6 August 2013 he was arrested following the accusation that he was “promoting atheism and spreading blasphemous ideas among young people”. These accusations were made in the context of his poetry collection “Instructions Within”. He was released the next day, but rearrested on 1 January 2014.
On 17 November 2015, the General Court sentenced Ashraf Fayadh to death for apostasy. He appealed the judgement. On 1 February 2016 the court of appeal reversed the decision of the General Court. They overturned the death-sentence and replaced it with eight years in prison, 800 lashes (to be carried out on 16 occasions with 50 lashes each time) and public repentance.
There is no further information about his current situation.
In our poetry event journalist and translator Jonathan Wright will read some of his English translations of Ashraf’s poems . The Palestinian journalist Samira Kawar will read Ashraf’s poem in the original version in Arabic.
III. Galal El-Behairy (Egypt)
1. Galal El-Behairy is an Egyptian poet and lyricist. He published two books: Chairs Factory (Masna’a El Karasy) published in 2015 and Colorful Prison (Segn Bel Alwan), 2017. He also wrote the lyrics of many songs by the singer Ramy Essam, among them is their biggest hits Segn Bel Alwan, a song in support of Women Human Rights Defenders. Ramy Essam is an Egyptian rock singer who performed on Tahrir Square during the popular uprising of 2011. Ramy had been arrested and tortured in 2011 and his song Irhal (Leave) was selected by Time Out 2011 as the third most world changing song ever. There is a fascinating interview with him from 2011 with CBS News on YouTube.
2. On 26 February 2018 Ramy Essam released a new song and music video Balaha. The release was one month prior to Egypt’s presidential elections. Galal El-Behairy wrote the lyrics for this song. Balaha means the fruit from a date palm tree and it is a well-known nickname for President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, in reference to a character in an Egyptian film who is a compulsive liar. The song criticises President al-Sisi in particular for the current state of economy and the poor political rights in the four years since he took office. The music video of Balaha went viral and has more than 4.7 million views so far. Shortly after the release of the video the Egyptian minister for culture Enas Abdel Dayem stated on television that he will bring a case against Galal and Ramy.
3. On 3 March 2018 Galal El-Behairy was arrested. For one week his family and friends did not know his whereabouts. On 10 March he appeared before the High State Security Court. He showed signs of beatings and severe torture.
The charges against Galal are numerous and include being “member of a terrorist group, spreading false news, the abuse of social media networks, blasphemy, contempt of religion and insulting the military“. There is also an arrest warrant against Ramy Essam in the context of the song Balaha, but Ramy lives in exile.
Galal El-Behairy’s lawyer says that he faces prosecution in two parallel proceedings: One is in front of the Military Court. It relates to “The Finest Women on Earth”, an unpublished collection of poetry. The public prosecutor claims that the title refers to the Egyptian troops and ridicules them and for the lyrics for Balaha. There are parallel proceedings in front of civilian courts.
4. Ramy Essam reacted to the arrest and Galal’s situation with a statement on 5 April 2018:
It is a song
We have been dreaming of a better Egypt for seven years. Even in the darkest of times, we haven’t lost hope. We have expressed ourselves peacefully through art, using music as a tool against violence, oppression and corruption.
With this song we wanted to remind everyone of the freedom we once had, granted by the revolution. We wanted to remind everyone of the right to speak, the right to criticize, and the right to dream of change.
We wanted to start a dialogue about where Egypt is now and where it could be. Our art is not created to make people fight. It is music, it is how we feel. It is a song.
However, Egypt does not seem to be interested in dialogue with its critics.
5. The first hearing at the Military Court in the procedure against Galal took place on 6 May. The judgement was initially announced for 9 May, but then postponed several times, first to 16 May, then 27 June and then 28 July. On 31 July 2018 the court finally handed down its verdict. Galal El-Behairy was sentenced to 3 years in prison and a fine for his poetry. The other case at the civilian court is still under investigation by the High State Security.
Galal was recently moved from Tora Prison (Cairo) to to Wadi el-Natrum prison (Alexandria).
On 25 January 2019 Galal El-Behairy, Islam Khalil, Shady Elghazaly, Abdelfatah Elbana and Ahmed AbuAlam started a hunger strike to draw attention to their situation. They are still on hunger strike.
6. Many organisations have called for Galal’s immediate and unconditional release. On 26 July 2018 UN human rights experts urged the Egyptian authorities to release him, because they see his prosecution as a “criminalisation of the legitimate exercise of artistic expression through the imposition of a range of dubious charges.” Among the human rights organisations calling for his release are Free Muse, Artist at Risk, PEN International and a number of Pen centres including English PEN.
7. In our poetry event we hope to have a video message by Ramy Essam. Fleur Brennan, a member of the Amnesty Group Westminster Bayswater, will read the English translation of two poems which Galal wrote in prison. Amir Darwish, a Syrian writer, who will read from his latest book later in the event, will also read Galal’s poems in the original Arabic version. We also might show an excerpt of the video clip Bahala and of the video clip of Segn Bel Alwan.
IV. Nedim Türfent (Turkey)
1. Nedim Türfent is a journalist. He worked for the pro-Kurdish Dicle News Agency. He reported mainly from the borders to Syria, because he had the feeling he had to give a voice to the people in the cities, town and villages there; those people “who would normally not be heard”.
2. On 12 May 2016 Nedim was arrested in the Eastern province of Van. Shortly before his arrest he had reported about a military action and clashes between Kurdish Civil Protection Units (YPG) and the Turkish army. One of his reports received country-wide media attention. In this report he highlighted the the ill-treatment of a group of detainees by a commander of the Turkish special forces.
In prison Nedim Türfent was subject to inhuman treatment and torture. He spend almost two years in solitary confinement in a small cell. The authorities say that he was held in solitary confinement, because he was a journalist. They fear he would write “news articles about someone every single day“. He also had no access to books and newspapers and the police threatened and harassed him.
3. Nedim Türfent was formally charged 10 months after his arrest. The allegations against him were that he is a member of the forbidden Kurdistan’s Workers Party (PKK) and therefore supports a terrorist organisation. The prosecutor in particular criticised that he had interviewed members of YPG which Turkey also considers to be a terrorist organisations. By reporting about YPG they claimed he was “spreading terrorist propaganda”. The prosecutor said that his reports and the information he shared on his Twitter account were incorrect and distorted.
Nedim Türfent denied being a PKK member and said that it belongs to his job as a journalist to interview a wide range of different people. PEN International says that he is detained only for the peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression. They think the real reason for his arrest and harsh treatment is that he uncovered human rights violations.
4. The trial against Nedim Türfent started on 14 June 2017. There were altogether six hearings in the trial. The hearings were held in Hakkari, 200 kilometres from Van where he was detained at this time. He was denied the right to appear in the court in person and had to participate via a video link. There were several technical problems. The system did not work on many occasions. There was occasionally no tone at the video link. Nedim gave his witness statement in Kurdish, but the translator did not always translate his statements properly. He could therefore not effectively follow the trial and defend himself.
The prosecutor based the charges on four secret witnesses and 22 open witnesses. Two of the secret witness and two of the open witnesses could not be contacted. 19 of 20 witnesses who was meant to give their statement at court recanted their witness statement. They said that they had made their statements under pressure, were asked to sign statements they were not allowed to read, experienced threats against themselves or family members. Some also said they were beaten and tortured to press them into making a witness statement against Nedim Türfent.
5. On 15 December 2017 the Court in Hakkari found Nedim Türfent guilty of “being a member of a terrorist organisation” and sentenced him to eight years nine months in prison. The court took no notice of the revocation of the witness statements, but only referred to the witness statements made to the public prosecutor. The court was also not interested in Nedim’s own statements, but rather based their decision on the articles he had written.
On 19 June 2018 Erzurum Regional Court rejected the appeal. His lawyers lodged an appeal to the Turkish Constitutional Court on 3 September 2018
6. Nedim Türfent started writing poetry in prison. He said:
‘I try to make use of my time in prison, and I try to make this period as colourful and alive to the extent that is possible. To do this, I put words together here and there’.
7. PEN International, including several sections in different countries, support Nedim Türfent. PEN International together with the International Press Institute (IPI) and the Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA) published an open letter in support of Nedim Türfent. In this letter more than 650 writers, journalists, publishers, artists and activists call for his immediate and unconditional release. The letter is still open for signatures. If you want to add your signature, please sign the petition here. You can also send messages of solidarity in English, German, Turkish or Kurdish, to the following address: Nedim Türfent, Van Yüksek Güvenlikli, Kapalı Ceza İnfaz Kurumu, Koğuş A53, Van, Turkey or write the Turkish authorities directly and ask for his release.
8. On Monday we will have Ege Dündar as a speaker about Nedim Türfent. Ege is a writer. He presented music shows in Turkey and worked as Sunday columnist in Milliyet Daily newspaper. Ege is the son of the Turkish journalist Cem Dündar who was prosecuted himself by the Turkish authorities and who lives now in Germany. Ege’s family is currently campaigning for his mother’s right to travel. Ege will read Nedim’s poems in Turkish. He also translated some of the poems into English. The writer James Miller will read a poem he wrote in support of Nedim Türfent.
I want to finish this post with a quote by Nedim Türfent about the role of the journalist. He wrote:
When storm clouds fall over the country, the first lightning strikes are always on journalists, on those who are trying to uncover the truth. Whenever a beam of light is cast upon the truth, there is always a price to be paid. I have to consider this price, this pound of flesh that is demanded for my work as a journalist.
I think this does not only apply to journalists, but also to poets and human rights activists and to everyone who decides to speak out against injustice, criticises authorities and shed a light on human rights violations. Our poetry evening will try to give a voice to those who were silenced and I hope many will come and join us on Monday. Also if you cannot come to the evening, there are many ways to show your support and I mentioned in this post and in previous posts actions you can take. Please help to share the stories of these writers and share their words and make sure that they are not silenced.