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Freedom to Write’

To the Editors:

Your readers may be interested to know that PEN American Center has named Shahla Lahiji, an Iranian publisher, and Mamadali Mahmudov, an Uzbek novelist, as recipients of its 2001 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards. The two awards this year carry stipends of $10,000 each.

One of the first women to own and operate a publishing house in Iran, Shahla Lahiji founded Roshangaran Publishing in 1983 and has published over 200 titles, including many groundbreaking works by women. She was one of sixteen prominent cultural figures invited to participate in a conference organized by the Heinrich Böll Institute in Berlin in April 2000 that brought Iranian writers and intellectuals together with Iranians living in exile to debate political and social reform in Iran. After returning to Iran, the participants and three translators accused of helping to organize the event were summoned to court, charged with crimes including endangering national security, and detained for trial.

Lahiji was held in Evin Prison and interrogated for several months without access to her attorney before being released on bail in June. Trial proceedings against the conference participants began in October, first behind closed doors, and then, following widespread public protests, in ten open sessions. Verdicts were returned on January 13, 2001. Of the nineteen men and women charged in connection with the Berlin conference, ten were sentenced to prison terms ranging from four to fourteen years, six were acquitted, and three others are awaiting verdicts, including a prominent cleric and writer who faces the death penalty. Shahla Lahiji received a sentence of three years and six months in prison for acting against national security by participating in the conference, plus an additional six months for propaganda against the Islamic system for speaking out about the dangers facing writers in Iran.

The well-known novelist and opposition activist Mamadali Mahmudov disappeared into the hands of agents of the Committee for National Security in Uzbekistan on February 19, 1999. His family knew nothing of his whereabouts until May, when he “reappeared” in prison. He was charged with threatening the president and the constitutional order, allegedly in connection with a series of explosions in Tashkent. He was tried along with five other men solely on the basis that they had copies of the banned newspaper Erk in their possession; all six were reportedly tortured and forced to sign self-incriminating statements, and some were coerced to declare their guilt on a government-sponsored national television program. In August 1999, he was sentenced to fourteen years in prison.

This is the second time that Mahmudov, who gained literary fame in the Soviet Union in the 1980s for his novel Immortal Cliffs, has been jailed in now-independent Uzbekistan. In 1991, Mahmudov supported the political party Erk, founded by fellow writer Muhammed Salih, who is now in exile. When President Karimov won the election, he banned the party and launched a campaign of persecution against its proponents. Mahmudov was arrested in 1994 and sentenced to four years in prison on corruption charges that PEN and Amnesty International concluded were fabrications. International pressure led to his release under a presidential amnesty, but attacks on freedom of expression have continued in Uzbekistan, and PEN believes Mahmudov’s current jail term is an extension of the campaign against Erk. The suspicious death of another Uzbek writer in detention in February 2001 has contributed to urgent fears for Mahmudov’s health and safety in prison.

Interested readers can send letters expressing concern for the well-being of Mamadali > Mahmudov and appealing for his immediate release to:

His Excellency Sadyk Safayev
Ambassador of the Republic of Uzbekistan to the United States
1746 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20036 Readers can also send letters protesting the convictions of Shahla Lahiji and all those charged in connection with the Berlin conference to:

His Excellency Ayatollah Sayyed ‘Ali Khamenei
Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran
c/o Iranian Interests Section
2209 Wisconsin Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20007

Frances FitzGerald


President
PEN American Center
New York City
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