Belarus: end crackdown on freedom of expression and peaceful protests

English PEN joins PEN International in urging the Belarusian authorities to immediately release anyone arrested during peaceful protests and to halt police violence, after peaceful rallies were violently dispersed across the country.

Waves of protests have taken place in Belarus since mid-February against the so-called ‘social parasite law’, which imposed a tax on Belarusians working less than six months a year. Following a public outcry, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka suspended the implementation of the decree for a year but refused to withdraw it, spurring further protests.

On 25 March, the Belarusian authorities violently cracked down on peaceful demonstrators who had gathered to mark the country’s Freedom Day. According to national and international human rights groups, police used excessive force and detained hundreds of protesters, as well as scores of journalists and human rights observers. The internet was also shut down across the country.

Hanna Yankuta, Vice President of the Belarusian PEN Centre, said:

We are deeply concerned by continuous reports of arrests of writers, journalists and booksellers across Belarus. Some said they were severely beaten and denied access to lawyers. We urge the Belarusian authorities to investigate these allegations and ensure that no one is being detained for peacefully expressing their views.

Jennifer Clement, PEN International President, said:

Belarus is seeing its biggest protests in years, yet instead of allowing people to peacefully protest the Belarusian authorities seem intent on suppressing dissent. This is unacceptable. Anyone arrested for daring to speak out must be immediately released.

Kätlin Kaldmaa, PEN International Secretary, said:

There is no justification for violently storming a peaceful protest. The actions of the Belarusian security forces must be independently and impartially investigated and those found responsible for excessive use of force must be brought to justice.

Since mid-February, several people have been sentenced to up to 15 days of administrative detention for participating in unauthorised gatherings across the country. Others have received heavy fines.

On 23 March, Belarus’ State Security Agency announced that 26 people had been arrested on charges of ‘aiming to participate in mass riots’ under Article 293 of the Belarusian Criminal Code, which carries up to three years in prison.

Of particular concern to English PEN is playwright and actor with the celebrated Belarus Free Theatre Siarhei Kvachonak, who was sentenced to ten days imprisonment on 27 March, reportedly on charges of ‘hooliganism, shouting, and using strong language’. Meanwhile, Kvachonak’s colleague, the actor and playwright Yana Rusakevich, has been hospitalised with a temporal bone break and concussion.

PEN calls on the Belarusian authorities to urgently uphold the rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly guaranteed under Articles 19 and 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), to which Belarus is a state party.

For additional information, please visit the PEN International website.

English PEN Modern Literature Festival 2017

Such was the resonance and enthusiasm around the first, the second had to come. It feels as though this is the beginning of a tradition. I hope so. There isn’t another curatorial activity that has proved to be this engaged and purposeful for me. Once again my role really is to liaise between the brilliant, principled, pragmatic work of those at English PEN, again working closely with the inspiring Cat Lucas, and the thirty writers who have agreed, all of them with great willingness and humble trepidation, to write or perform a new work on April 1st, in service of another author.

Once again my experience was to spend time with authors around the world whose deliberate acts of decency, whose ethical drive, whose fundamental character, has led them directly into the kind of psychological and physical harm that leaves one weaker for knowing of it. To spend such brief time with these people, these peers, and to know in that trifling moment how little I can know of what they and their families are experiencing because of their writing, their journalism, their poetry. And so the English writers have expressed again this feeling of overwhelming responsibility. One so overwhelmingly as to be perhaps prohibitive. And for all its remarkable energy and galvanising intensity this is the one thing I have learnt from last year and that I have tried to pass on to this year. This magnitude is implicit. The authors from England should not apologise for their own fortune and comfort while celebrating the courage of another. They should celebrate them, write for them, to them, with them. They should be as modern, as experimental, as humorous as they are grave. They should take their responsibility to be in the investment aesthetically as well as emotionally. This is not a small detail. It is vital. Because by doing the day itself, by making something where perhaps there would be no connection between two writers across the world, that sense of shame, in a small way is being acknowledged. From that moment on, we must just have them in our minds, spread the word of their work and their actions, keep things alive.

Some extraordinary writers are involved this year, you can see the full list below. The event is free, in three parts. What I hope happens is what I hoped for when we initially hatched the idea. Nothing impossible, nothing utopian. The aim is simply to create more members of English PEN, so that the political will of this time is directly forcefully behind the writers charity, who have the expertise, who are on the front lines of absolutely vital battlegrounds in our time, from surveillance to free speech, while also being a light in the dark for many writers abroad, thirty of whom we will celebrate on April 1st.

SJ Fowler is a poet and artist. He works in the modernist and avant-garde traditions, across poetry, fiction, theatre, sonic art, visual art, installation and performance. He has published various collections of poetry and text, and been commissioned by Tate Modern, BBC Radio 3, The British Council, Tate Britain, Liverpool Biennial and Wellcome Collection. He has been translated into 21 languages and performed at venues across the world, from Mexico City to Erbil, Beijing to Tbilisi. He is the poetry editor of 3am magazine, Lecturer at Kingston University, teaches at Tate Modern and is the curator of the Enemies project.

Saturday 1 April 2017
Venue One, Rich Mix, near Brick Lane, London
2pm / 4pm / 7.30pm
Entrance is free but please consider joining PEN or making a donation

On 1 April 2017, 30 UK-based writers, poets, novelists, playwrights and artists will join English PEN and the Enemies Project for the second English PEN Modern Literature Festival. Each of the writers will perform new works created in solidarity with some of the incredible individuals we support throughout the year through our Writers at Risk Programme.


Reading Order:

2pm to 3.30pm

Luke Kennard – Raif Badawi
Nisha Ramayya – Aseem Trivedi
Susie Campbell – Tsering Woeser
Lavinia Singer – Zhu Yufu
SJ Fowler – Waleed Abu Al Khair
Mischa Foster Poole – Alaa Abd El Fattah
Chloe Spicer – Dina Meza
Kate Wakeling – Nurmuhemmet Yasin
Denise Riley – Necmiye Alpay

4pm to 5.30pm

Hannah Silva – Narges Mohammadi
Rebecca Tamas – Ashraf Fayadh
matt martin – Amanuel Asrat
John Hall – Dr Abduljalil Al-Singace
Carol Watts – Aslı Erdoğan
Peter Philpott – Dawit Isaak
Camilla Nelson – Dareen Tatour
Rod Mengham – Mahvash Sabet
Zoë Skoulding – Sanjuana Martinez Montemayor

7.30pm to 9.30pm

Sasha Dugdale – Ahmet and Mehmet Altan
Simon Pomery – Nguyen Van Dai
Sandeep Parmar – Lydia Cacho
Tom Jenks – Nabeel Rajab
Nathan Jones – Zunar
Jeremy Noel-Tod – Nelson Aguilera
Chrissy Williams – The Al-Khawaja family
Tony White – Ahmed Naji
Larry Lynch – Oleg Sentsov
Matthew Welton – Tutul
Elizabeth-Jane Burnett – Liu Xia
Vahni Capildeo – The Douma 4

We look forward to seeing you in April. In the meantime, follow #penfestuk for regular updates, and watch last year’s performances here.

World Poetry Day 2017

To mark this year’s World Poetry Day, English PEN and our colleagues from PEN centres across the globe are joining together to highlight the cases of some of our imprisoned colleagues. Please take a few moments to read their work, to send a message of support and to join the call for their release.

Liu Xia ( resized Chinese poet and artist Liu Xia, a founding member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, has been held under house arrest since her husband, fellow poet Liu Xiaobo, was named winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2010. #FreeLiuXia
More information and suggested actions here

Amanuel Asrat.jpeg (resized)Amanuel Asrat, an award-winning Eritrean poet, critic and editor-in-chief of the leading newspaper ዘመን (Zemen), was arrested at his home  September 2001. More than fifteen years later there is still no news of his whereabouts. #FreeAsrat
More information and suggested actions here


dareen tatour (pen international)Poet Dareen Tatour is currently under house arrest and standing trial on charges of ‘support for a terrorist organisation’ and several counts of incitement to violence in connection with her poetry and social media activity. #FreeDareen
More information and suggested actions here.

English PEN will also be highlighting the cases of detained poets Amanuel Asrat, Liu Xia and Dareen Tatour at this year’s English PEN Modern Literature Festival, curated by SJ Fowler. Join us on 1 April to see original performances in solidarity with them and other writers at risk from across the world from Elizabeth Jane-Burnett, matt martin, and Camilla Nelson.

Bahrain: mounting concern for health of academic, activist and blogger Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace

PEN is deeply concerned for the health and well-being of prominent Bahraini academic, activist and blogger Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, who is currently detained in Jau prison serving a life sentence for his peaceful opposition activities.

According to his family, Dr. Al-Singace was urgently transferred to a military hospital last week. Doctors indicated that he had suffered severe dehydration. On 12 March 2017, prison authorities reportedly refused to allow Dr. Al-Singace to attend a hospital appointment as he refused to wear the prison uniform and handcuffs. Dr. Al-Singace has long required specialist medical treatment for ongoing health problems, some of which result from torture and ill-treatment in prison.

PEN calls for Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace to be granted access to all necessary medical care as a matter of urgency, and continues to call for his immediate and unconditional release, as well as all those detained in Bahrain in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bahrain is a state party.

Take action

English PEN will be highlighting Dr Al-Singace’s case at this year’s Modern Literature Festival with a performance written in his honour by poet and essayist John Hall.  Join us on 1 April.

Spread the word

Please share details of Dr Al-Singace’s current situation with friends and colleagues and on social media. #FreeSingace

Send messages of support

If you would like to send a message of support to Dr Al-Singace please email and we will arrange for it to be passed on to him.

Send letters of appeal

Please send appeals:

  • Expressing serious concern for the health of academic, activist and blogger Abduljalil Al-Singace, urging the authorities to permit him access to all necessary medical care;
  • Calling for the immediate and unconditional release of Abduljalil Al-Singace and all those detained in Bahrain in violation of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Bahrain is a state party;
  • Demanding a full investigation into reports that Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace and others are being ill-treated in prison.

Send appeals to:

His Majesty Sheikh Hamad bin ‘Issa Al-Khalifa
King of Bahrain
Office of His Majesty the King
P.O.Box 555
Rifa’a Palace,
Kingdom of Bahrain.
Fax: +973 176 64 587
Salutation: Your Majesty

Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al-Khalifa
Minister of Justice and Islamic Affairs
Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs
P.O.Box 450
Fax: +973 175 31 284

Please copy appeals to the diplomatic representative for Bahrain in your country if possible. A list of embassies can be found here.


Blogger and human rights activist Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace was sentenced by a special security court in June 2011 to life imprisonment for his peaceful activities; the verdict was confirmed by the appeal court on 4 September 2012. Dr. Al-Singace is a member of the “Bahrain 13”, a group of thirteen peaceful political activists and human rights defenders, including Ebrahim Sharif and Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, sentenced to prison terms for their peaceful role in Bahrain’s Arab Spring protests in 2011. Dr. Al-Singace was awarded the Liu Xiaobo Courage to Write Award by the Independent Chinese PEN Centre, and was named one of Index on Censorship’s 100 “free expression heroes” in 2016.

According to his family members, Dr. Al-Singace was urgently transferred to a military hospital from Jau prison’s clinic last week after he fainted. Doctors indicated that he had suffered severe dehydration. The doctor is reported to have prescribed medication, including antibiotics, and fluids. On 12 March 2017, Dr. Al-Singace was due to attend a hospital appointment, however, the prison authorities reportedly refused to allow him to attend as Dr. Al-Singace had refused to wear the prison uniform and handcuffs.

Dr. Al-Singace has long required specialist medical treatment for ongoing health problems, some of which result from torture and ill-treatment in prison. Dr Al-Singace is disabled, and suffers from a number of serious long-term health problems including disc problems in the lower back and neck, heart problems, nasal sinus inflammation and an enlarged prostate. In April 2015, Dr. Al-Singace was taken to al-Qala’a hospital, four weeks after starting a hunger strike in protest against the deprivation of basic rights and ill-treatment of prisoners in Jau prison. He was previously hospitalised in mid-September 2014 for investigation into ongoing problems resulting from a seriously damaged eardrum which is believed to have been caused by torture and ill-treatment in Jau prison in 2010 and 2011.

For more information on Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, please read PEN’s most recent statement on his case.

English PEN-supported titles selected for Man Booker International Prize long list

The books are:

  • Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, translated by Eliza Marciniak (Portobello Books)
  • The Traitor’s Niche by Ismail Kadare, translated by John Hodgson (Harvill Secker)
  • Black Moses by Alain Mabanckou, translated by Helen Stevenson (Serpent’s Tail)
  • Bricks and Mortar by Clemens Meyer, translated by Katy Derbyshire (Fitzcarraldo Editions)

The PEN Translates programme is funded by Arts Council England and awards funds to publishers to cover translation costs. English PEN’s Translation Committee, which includes professionals from across the publishing industry, selects more than 30 titles a year for financial assistance.

Samantha Schnee, English PEN deputy president and former chair of PEN’s Writers in Translation Committee, said:

We are so pleased to learn that the Man Booker International Prize has recognised a number of PEN-supported titles in this year’s long list. As the English PEN grants programme enters its second decade, the value of reading writers from other countries and cultures is higher than ever. In a market that can be overwhelming, the PEN grants are an indicator of high quality.