–PEN Pinter Prize 2023 winner Michael Rosen announces Uyghur academic Professor Rahile Dawut as the Writer of Courage 2023.
–Professor Rahile Dawut is an internationally acclaimed academic, anthropologist, and a leading expert on Uyghur folklore and cultural traditions.
–In December 2017, Rahile Dawut was due to travel to Beijing for an academic conference, but never reached her destination. It was widely believed that she had been disappeared by the Chinese authorities.
–Dawut is now understood to have lost an appeal in the High People’s Court of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which upheld a sentence of life-imprisonment on charges of endangering state security by promoting ‘splittism’.
Professor Rahile Dawut is tonight, Wednesday 11 October 2023, named Writer of Courage 2023. The Writer of Courage is awarded to a writer who is active in defence of freedom of expression, often at great risk to their own safety and liberty. The winner of the PEN Pinter Prize 2023, Michael Rosen, made the announcement in an address at the British Library this evening, whilst accepting his award. Rahile Dawut was selected as co-winner by Rosen in collaboration with English PEN’s Writers at Risk Programme.
An associate professor at Xinjiang University and founder of the university’s research centre on minority folklore, Professor Rahile Dawut is recognised around the world for her peerless contributions to the study and cataloguing of Uyghur cultural heritage. In December 2017, Rahile Dawut was due to travel to Beijing for an academic conference, but never reached her destination. It was widely believed that she had been disappeared by the Chinese authorities.
Despite international condemnation of her disappearance and a campaign led by her daughter calling for her release, more than three years passed before her former co-workers were able to confirm that the Chinese authorities had sentenced and imprisoned her. Six years since she first disappeared, she continues to be held incommunicado and her whereabouts remain unknown. Last month, it was widely reported that a sentence of life imprisonment on charges of endangering state security by promoting ‘splittism’, originally handed down in 2018, has now been upheld.
The award was accepted on Professor Rahile Dawut’s behalf by Rachel Harris, Professor of Ethnomusicology, SOAS University of London. Professor Rahile Dawut is a long-standing case of concern to PEN and is among the writers featured in English PEN’s international letter-writing campaign, PENWrites, in solidarity with writers in prison and at risk around the world, with many PEN members, supporters, and partner organisations having written messages of support.
PEN Pinter Prize 2023 winner, Michael Rosen, said:
Standing here in the British Library, I could not be more aware of the huge gulf between the kind of freedoms I have or often take for granted but are denied to many others in the world. I have devoted many hours in my life to the enjoyment and study of folklore – story and song in particular – trying to understand the values, ideas, and feelings that these express. My passion for what the American poet Carl Sandburg once called ‘The People, Yes’ is pushed towards sorrow and anger on hearing that someone could be imprisoned for precisely the kind of interest that I have. This is why I have chosen Rahile Dawut to be this year’s Writer of Courage.
I must wish her well, fervently hope that whatever we are doing here today, helps her case. I want to express admiration for what she has done, and I wish her all the mental and physical strength she needs, or as my parents would say: ‘sh’koyech’ a Hebraic yiddish saying, meaning something like a mix of appreciation and wishing strength to someone.
Professor Rahile Dawut’s daughter, Akeda Pulati, said:
My mother is a distinguished scholar. She should be doing her research and enjoying her retirement life right now, but instead, she is in prison. And recent news about her life imprisonment not only devastated me, but also devastated anyone who loves her and who loves Uyghur culture. She is being punished for being a hard-working scholar and for loving culture.
Born in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, People’s Republic of China (PRC), Professor Rahile Dawut is a prominent anthropologist and leading expert on the study of Uyghur folklore and cultural traditions.
An associate professor at Xinjiang University and founder of the university’s Ethnic Minorities Folklore Research Center, Dawut is recognised internationally for her unique contribution to the study and cataloguing of Uyghur cultural heritage. Her work was also recognised and supported by the PRC government: in 2016, just a year before she was initially detained, Dawut received a research grant from the Ministry of Culture, reportedly the largest ever given to a Uyghur research project.
Rahile Dawut disappeared in late 2017, shortly after making plans to travel from Xinjiang to Beijing to participate in an academic conference.
In July 2021, investigative reporting by Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service finally confirmed that she had been imprisoned and sentenced by the Chinese authorities, according to sources within Xinjiang University. The authorities have yet to publicly disclose her whereabouts.
PEN considers Rahile Dawut’s imprisonment to be a clear breach of her right to freedom of expression and calls for her immediate and unconditional release.
Photo credit: George Torode
Photo of Rahile Dawut: Lisa Ross