Writers in Prisons Conference in Brussels , March 2011.

PEN International‘s WiPC Conference, Brussels, March 2011.  Emer Liston. 
PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee conference is held bi-annually.  This year the location was Brussels, and the hosts were PEN Vlaanderen – the Dutch speaking Belgian PEN centre.  I had the great privilege of representing Irish PEN at the WiPC conference in Brussels, and delivering Irish PEN’s position paper on our recently passed blasphemy law.
Throughout the conference, we heard many cases highlighted from around the world and nearer home, in Europe – cases of writers being detained, punished and persecuted for crimes of conscience and for daring to defy authoritarian regimes that still flourish all around us.
Throughout the weekend conference, there was much celebration about the success of the recent revolution in Tunisia.  Naziha Rejiba, a female writer from Tunisia, spoke of the joy in her homeland now that writers and prisoners of conscience had been set free.  Since the uprising, books have appeared in shop windows and writers have quickly become inspired.  Also, writers had previously been championed in the underground literary scene for the simple reason that they were banned – now critics and readers can choose who they will champion without fear.
Sri Lanka was cited as a country that has no internet lines at all, rendering communication almost impossible.  One delegate, a Sri Lankan journalist, was communicating on the internet using a satellite phone with no opportunity to write long messages.  He needed to move constantly because of the fear of satellite detection.  Journalists for Democracy in Sri Lanka campaigned for this journalist and currently for another journalist who is about to be deported from Ireland.

The case of the Sri Lankan journalist in Ireland who is facing imminent deportation was highlighted throughout the conference as “the most horrible metaphor for On The Move” (On the Move was the theme of the Passaporta literary festival).  Marion Bosford-Fraser from Canadian PEN stated that pleas to the Irish Justice Department were urgently needed to change his terrible fate.   
The Belarus campaign was highlighted by a representative from Belarusian PEN.  3 members of Belarusian PEN were detained in prison at once, at the end of last year, when their offices were raided and their computers were seized on Dec 28.  Currently their movements are very restricted, and they are under constant surveillance.
English PEN reminded the delegation that the Free Belarusian Theatre had just won an award from Index on Censorship in recognition of their work, and they are due to perform in the British house of commons on Monday 28 March with Jude Law and Kevin Spacey, two figures who are committed to the cause of Belarusians living under the last dictatorship in Europe.
On Saturday March 26th, I spoke as the Irish PEN delegate on Irish PEN’s campaign to abolish our blasphemy law, which provides that those found guilty of the offence of blasphemy face a fine of up to €25,000.  (Moreover, courts are empowered to issue a warrant authorising the police to forcibly enter and search any suspected premises, including a dwelling, for copies of “blasphemous” statements).  The delegation unanimously voted to support Irish PEN’s campaign, and PEN International pledged to prepare a letter to that effect.  Norwegian PEN and Larry Siems, from American PEN, also spoke on the need to stop any move to protect against religious defamation at UN level. 
One of the strengths of the WiPC conference was the apparently seamless link-in with other relevant conferences and literary events which were held in Brussels on the same weekend.  Throughout the weekend conference, one building – the KVS theatre – was home to shared events.  These events were organised by PEN International, PEN Vlaanderen, ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network), HALMA (the network of literary centres in Europe) and the Passaporta festival of literature.  This meant that both public, open and ticketed literary events were held while a number of delegates with specific interests were visiting the city with a common purpose.  In this way, instead of pillaging a small niche market for literary events, the organisers of each event were cannily expanding a niche market by inviting visitors from all over Europe and the world to attend the conference, while a literary festival was also taking place.  This is certainly a model we could follow here in the literary events community in Ireland, as Dublin still basks in the glow of the recently awarded title of UNESCO City of Literature.
To support Irish PEN’s blasphemy campaign, and for more information on writers of conscience here in Ireland, please visit irishpen.com to leave a message of support, or visit Irish PEN on Facebook, follow our Twitter account: twitter.com/PENIreland, or alternatively contact us at: info@irishpen.com.

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