Turkey: Mehmet Baransu must be released

The charges against Baransu relate to a series of articles that he wrote for the daily Taraf in early 2010, in which he revealed an alleged plot to overthrow the government of Turkey by members of the Turkish military. These articles were based on a cache of classified documents and CDs given to Baransu by an anonymous source. Baransu later passed the information on to Turkish prosecutors who initiated a controversial trial against the alleged coup-plotters named in the documents.

Baransu’s arrest comes amid heightened tensions between Turkey’s AKP government and members of the media deemed to have close ties to the US-based Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen.

Marian Botsford Fraser, Chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee said:

The arrest of Mehmet Baransu five years after the publication of these articles flies in the face of established European case law concerning the publication of classified documents that fall within the public interest. This latest case is symptomatic of the political climate that is increasingly holding sway in today’s Turkey and raises serious questions about the deteriorating state of freedom of expression in the country. We call on the Turkish authorities to drop this case immediately and to unconditionally release Mehmet Baransu.

European Court of Human Rights case law clearly defends the rights of journalists to publish classified documents that fall within the public interest. PEN calls on the Turkish authorities to immediately and unconditionally release Baransu and to drop all charges that he faces as a result of his legitimate work as an investigative journalist.

Baransu is currently being held in pre-trial detention in Istanbul’s Metris Prison.

Speaking about the case against Baransu, English PEN’s Writers at Risk Programme Manager Cat Lucas said:

English PEN is seriously concerned by journalist Mehmet Baransu’s recent arrest, which we believe to be in clear violation of his right to freedom of expression. The European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) has ruled in favour of journalists who have been prosecuted in relation to the publication of classified documents on numerous occasions in recent years and we see no reason that Baransu’s case would be an exception to this. We therefore join PEN International in calling for his immediate release.

Leading Turkish journalists including Ahmet Altan, Mehmet Altan, Yasemin Çongar and Roni Margulies have condemned Baransu’s arrest, criticising the reasoning that led prosecutors to define documents relating to an alleged coup plot as classified material relating to national security.

Nevertheless, Baransu remains a controversial figure in Turkey. The army officers implicated in the alleged coup plot revealed by Baransu have repeatedly claimed that the evidence against them was fabricated. In 2014, Turkey’s highest court ruled that the authorities had violated the officers’ right to a fair trial, leading to fresh hearings and mass releases from prison; including releases for several officers that had previously received sentences of up to 20 years in prison. Baransu has also been criticised for his reaction to the arrest and pre-trial detention of PEN main cases Ahmet Şιk and Nedim Şener and for campaigning for the Turkish satirical dictionary Ekşi Sözlük to be shut down. The date for the next hearing of his trial is yet to be decided.

Bahrain: Nabeel Rajab appeal postponed

Bahrain’s Court of Appeals convened today over human rights defender Nabeel Rajab’s appeal case; unfortunately the court again postponed the decision until 15 March. Rajab’s lawyers requested that a travel ban that has been in place since 2 November be lifted, however the court has declined this request. Nabeel Rajab may also face charges of inciting hatred against the regime in a new case. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR), Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (BIRD), Americans for Democracy and Human Rights (ADHRB) and English PEN condemn the original sentencing of Nabeel Rajab and call on the Government to overturn its decision during the appeal. The aforementioned NGOs condemn the latest allegations brought against Nabeel Rajab as attempts to further intimidate human rights defenders.

Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) and Deputy Secretary-General of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and a member of Human Rights Watch’s advisory board, received a six-month sentence in January for insulting the Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence in a tweet, though he remains on bail until the Appeals Court’s verdict. The September 2014 tweet in question read: ‘many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator.’ If Rajab’s sentence is upheld on 15 March, he will be imprisoned for his free expression.

Husain Abdulla, Executive Director of Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, said:

Any criticism of the government is now treated as an insult against the regime. Bahrain’s international allies must bring strong pressure upon Bahrain and send a message that criminalizing free speech is never acceptable.

The trial and persecution of Nabeel Rajab on charges related to his freedom of expression has been criticised by both State actors and international human rights organisations alike. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights described his arrest as “chilling” and called for Bahrain to halt reprisals against human rights defenders. The Special Procedures raised concerns regarding his treatment in their latestjoint communications report. In January, over 50 organisations signed a statement calling for all charges against Mr. Rajab to be dropped. Over 100 Members of European Parliament and 21 Members of the UK Parliament have made similar calls in condemning his previous arrest and detention. The United States, Norway, France have called for Bahrain to respect freedom of expression and abide by their commitments under international law.

In an incident unconnected to the current case, Nabeel Rajab may soon face new charges. On 26 February, Rajab received a summons to Hamad Town police station. Rajab presented himself at his local police station on Sunday 1 March.  At the station the police questioned Nabeel on a speech he gave at a memorial service for Abdulredha BuHamaid who was killed in Feb 2011 as he was heading to the pearl roundabout. If he is arrested, he fears that he will serve several years in prison. Police accused Rajab of inciting hatred against the regime, based on many allegations, including accusing the Ministry of Interior staff and officials of torturing detainees; of having killed people; discriminating against Shia and calling for the re-opening of the Pearl Roundabout which was destroyed in March 2011. However, police have not officially pressed charges.

Nabeel Rajab stated:

There does not seem to be any tolerance to writing or saying anything against the policy of the government. I do not have an army nor am I part of any political group. What I have is my pen and my tongue and I speak and I write, which they see as a threat.

Nabeel Rajab’s appeal hearing and latest allegations coincide with the opening of the 28th Session of the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. Since the 27th Session in September, Bahrain has seen no improvements in its human rights record. BCHR, BIRD and ADHRB find that Bahrain continues to neglect its commitments under the International Convention for Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), Convention against Torture (CAT), Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Bahrain has also failed to implement the majority of its 2012 Universal Periodic Review recommendations.

Speaking yesterday at the Human Rights Council, the Undersecretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bahrain Abdullah Abdullatif Abdulla, gave an optimistic view of ‘the Kingdom’s commitment to implement the legal safeguards enshrined in the constitution and in the various national legislatures … and that the promotion and protection of human rights is indispensable.’

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Director of Advocacy at the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, stated:

With these latest allegations against Nabeel, the government is now threatening to punish him for his human rights work. If calling for accountability, equality and justice is incitement of hatred, then Bahrain has clearly not reformed, despite what the government may say.

Cat Lucas, Writers at Risk Programme Manager at English PEN, stated:

English PEN and our colleagues from PEN centres all over the world remain seriously concerned for Nabeel Rajab. The authorities may think that this additional delay, combined with the fact that his next hearing is due to take place at a weekend, means that the outcome of the hearing will go unnoticed by the international community. That is not the case. We will all continue to call for all charges against Nabeel Rajab to be dropped, and for the immediate release of the many other Bahrainis detained or on trial in violation of their right to freedom of expression.

The Government of Bahrain’s continued reprisals against Nabeel Rajab for his spoken opinion are in violation of international covenants and conventions. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifically states that ‘Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinion without interference.’ This right is reaffirmed in Article 19 of the ICCPR.

The aforementioned NGOs call on the United Kingdom, the European Union, the United States and other national and international bodies to:

  • Apply pressure on the Government of Bahrain to overturn the conviction against Nabeel Rajab and vacate his sentence;
  • Apply pressure on the Government of Bahrain to halt any further judicial harassment of Nabeel Rajab and other human rights defenders in Bahrain;
  • Urge the Bahraini government to repeal laws that infringe upon internationally protected rights;
  • Urge the Government of Bahrain to ensure that civil society organizations and human rights defenders in Bahrain may conduct their work without fear of retaliation or reprisal.

Mexico: English PEN and CPJ call on President Peña Nieto to protect freedom of expression

In a letter sent to President Peña Nieto to coincide with a state visit during which he will meet the Queen, the Prime Minister and address both Houses of Parliament, English PEN and CPJ have called on the Mexican President to urgently address impunity and attacks against journalists in Mexico.

It is now more than five months since 43 student teachers disappeared in Guerrero. Meanwhile, the abduction and subsequent brutal murder of newspaper editor José Moisés Sánchez Cerezo in January serves as a disturbing reminder that so long as the authorities fail to prosecute the killers of journalists, they will continue to be vulnerable to violent retribution for their work.

Shocking and horrific as these crimes are, sadly none are exceptional. José Moisés Sánchez Cerezo was at least the tenth journalist to have been murdered or disappeared in Veracruz since 2010, and one of more than 50 journalists killed or disappeared in the last seven years, many in direct connection to their journalism.

The disappearance of the 43 student teachers has united the nation and led to unprecedented demonstrations on the streets, yet enforced disappearances involving both non-state and state actors are rife in Mexico, and have been for decades.

Both cases have also highlighted the major threat to freedom of expression in Mexico and to Mexicans – impunity.  Impunity in crimes against journalists in Mexico stands at around 90 percent, fuelled by corruption, collusion, or lack of resources by local and provincial authorities.  Legislation in 2013 to support the enactment of a constitutional amendment giving federal authorities jurisdiction to prosecute crimes against journalists has been underutilised, and has not yielded any convictions in journalist killings. Meanwhile, the mayor of Medellín de Bravo, Omar Cruz Reyes, who was accused by one of the crime’s accomplices of masterminding José Moisés Sánchez Cerezo’s murder, enjoys immunity as an elected official. Prosecutors are seeking the removal of his immunity from the state. The impact of Mexico’s entrenched cycle of impunity and violence against the press is undeniable. Time and again media organisations and individual journalists have declared self-censorship as their only means of safety, leaving communities without access to information and news on vital topics.

English PEN and CPJ join with Mexicans in the UK and all over the world in demanding that the government do more to protect freedom of expression in Mexico, and the human rights of all Mexicans.

The joint letter is one of a number of actions English PEN will be taking to highlight the dangers facing journalists and writers as part of our 2015 focus on Mexico.

Murder in Dhaka

The ghastly murder of Avijit Roy on a road in Dhaka reveals just how dangerous it has become for writers to express themselves freely in Bangladesh. Unknown assailants viciously attacked Roy and his wife Rafida Ahmed Bonna with cleavers or machetes last night. Both were critically injured and taken to a hospital. Roy died soon; Rafida is fighting for her life.

Roy was a feisty U.S.-based blogger of Bangladeshi origin, who was an avowed atheist. His blog is called Mukto Mona, or free mind, and there he wrote spirited essays criticizing religious fundamentalism. The website today carries the message: ‘Aamra shokahoto, kintu aamra oparajito’ (We are mourning but we shall remain unvanquished).

As Roy lived in the United States, he was far from the reach of fundamentalists in his home country, but many had noticed what a post from the International Humanist and Ethical Union shows: that an Islamic activist had said last year, “Avijit Roy lives in America and so, it is not possible to kill him right now. He will be murdered when he comes back.” He was aware of the threats.

Roy comes from a family devoted to social commitment and activism. His father Ajay Roy is a professor at Dhaka University who has championed religious minority rights. Avijit Roy was visiting Bangladesh to promote his latest books, Shunno theke Moha Bishwo (From Vacuum to Universe) and Bishwasher Virus (The Virus of Faith) at the highly popular Omar Ekushey Boi Mela (Immortal 21st Book Fair), which is held each year around February 21. (That date has a special meaning in Bangladesh, for it was on that day in 1952 that police opened fire on students in Dhaka who were demanding equal status for the Bengali language. Bangladesh was then known as East Pakistan and was part of Pakistan; the federal government had made Urdu the national language and refused to concede demands from East Pakistan that Bengali be granted equal status. Nearly two decades later, East Bengal seceded from Pakistan after a nine-month war, and became the new nation, Bangladesh.)

Witnesses told reporters that the attack took place in front of a police barricade that was put up to control traffic because of the popular book fair that attracts thousands of visitors. Roy’s writing enraged fundamentalists because he was unsparing in his criticism of blind faith and an outspoken advocate of secular, atheist thoughts. He faced threats – he shared some of those with IHEU – which show the absolutist intolerance of his detractors. Some of these threats were made through posts on social media sites like Facebook, and an online bookstore that stocked Roy’s books was also threatened. The bookstore stopped stocking Roy’s books.

Roy is not the first writer to be attacked thus. Exactly eleven years ago, on February 27, 2004, Humayun Azad, a professor of Bangla at Dhaka University, was hacked in a manner similar to the attack on Roy. He was also returning from the book fair. Azad survived that attack, but died in mysterious circumstances later that year in Germany, where he had gone on an academic visit. His family demanded a probe in 2009.

In February 2013, Rajib Hyder, a blogger who supported the ‘Gonojagoron Moncho’ (People’s Awakening Platform) was killed near Shahbagh, where thousands of Bangladeshis had congregated to demand the death penalty for several of the accused facing war crimes charges at the International Crimes Tribunal. Like Hyder, Roy campaigned for the death penalty for the accused. Most of the accused belong to the Jamaat-i-Islami party, which opposed the creation of Bangladesh, and has been an ally of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party in previous coalition governments. Several of the accused have since been executed. Neither the Jamaat nor the BNP have any representation in the current parliament, as they boycotted the controversial elections which took place in early 2014 and which resulted in a parliament with a majority of MPs being elected uncontested .

These attacks are outrageous, and the Bangladesh Government, particularly the present one which claims to be secular, should stand by the writers and protect their right to speak freely. Instead, it has adopted a policy of appeasement of ‘religious sentiment.’ This comes alongside intimidation of the mainstream media that are critical of the government, including the leading national newspapers.  The media that has supported free thought and critical thinking is under assault from a government showing increasingly authoritarian tendencies. At the same time, while the state claims to counter fundamentalism, bloggers who have written critically of religion are being prosecuted under the nation’s colonial-era laws that restrict speech that might offend religious ‘sentiment’ or create ‘enmity’ between religious communities. Some of those bloggers no longer feel safe and have moved abroad. And few would now want to return, given what happened to Roy. The loss that the Roy family has suffered is incalculable. And the harm done to Bangladesh – the land that inspired Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam – is severe; it is becoming a land where assassins feel emboldened and act with impunity while writers are forced to watch what they speak, keeping their thoughts imprisoned in their minds.

Salil Tripathi is the author of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy (Aleph Book Company, 2014), and former board member and co-chair of English PEN.

Asylum and Exile – event report

‘Benefit Scroungers. Criminals. Terrorists.’ These are the vicious words that tabloids throw around when discussing asylum seekers and it is our job to ‘battle these simple lies with complex truths: to personalise and humanise.’

This was the crux of the opening statement given by Maurice Wren, CEO of the Refugee Council, who chaired the English PEN and Free Word Centre event ‘Asylum and Exile: The Hidden Voices of London’ on Tuesday 3 February 2015. Maurice was joined by writer and outreach worker Bidisha, refugee worker at Praxis Community Projects Bethan Lant, author Nadifa Mohamed, poetry class facilitator Bamidele Hassan and writer and performance poet Malika Booker.

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The event took as its starting point Bidisha’s recently released book, which gave its title as the name of the event. Inspired by a residency undertaken with English PEN in 2012, Asylum and Exile is a collection of stories about the lives of asylum seekers and refugees – as told in their own voices. At both the start and end of the event, Malika Booker read extracts from the book. Some anecdotes were funny whilst some were tragic, but all succeeded in conveying a strong sense of the personality behind each tale. Contradicting the semantics of news stories and far-right politicians who seek to dehumanize refugees and render them mere statistics, Malika’s readings (and the book in general) brought into focus the reality of life as a newcomer to a strange land.

In the panel discussion that followed, each panelist shared their own experiences and interactions with the people and discourse surrounding immigration. Bethan told of how refugees and seekers are consistently faced with disbelief – from authorities, from the general public – about their stories, and how books like Bidisha’s are therefore so important for redressing that. Nadifa told of how she is surrounded by such stories in her personal life, and how they feed into her work: in her current novel, for example, she is particularly focusing on the ‘heart-sickness’ of having a history that is divided between two different places.

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Bamidele, who has first-hand experience of seeking asylum in the UK, paid stark testament to hard-nosed disbelief that an asylum seeker’s story is almost invariably faced with; people ask for your story and then disbelieve it as ‘fabricated’. Gaining refugee status in the UK, he said, plunges you into a convoluted world of impenetrable procedures, where any positive outcome is based not on your story but on sheer luck. He chose to read the poem Invictus by William Ernest Henley, which movingly captured his experience of seeking asylum: he had met with the ‘bludgeonings of chance’ and had been left ‘bloody, but unbowed.’

After this thought-provoking panel discussion, the audience’s questions focused predominantly on how to counter the increasingly right-wing political discourse that vilifies those who seek to find refuge in the UK. Finding a counter-narrative to these ideas, all agreed, was not going to be easy. However, some glimmers of hope were gleaned. One salient suggestion was that the arts could provide such a counter-narrative. Books such as those by Bidisha and Nadifa Mohamed allow people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, something that is fundamental in creating awareness about the plight of asylum seekers. The importance of the arts in education was also raised, as Malika spoke of workshops which English PEN’s cohort of writers had run in schools that had been truly perspective-changing for many of the students involved.

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It was put to the audience that it is our job to ‘change one mind at a time’. Challenging a racist joke, an ill-informed tweet, or a xenophobic Facebook post may seem like a drop in the ocean, but as Sydney Smith once wrote, it is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little.

By Ella Watkins and Rachel Sherrington (English PEN volunteers)