To the Editors:

The trial against Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and Honorary Member of PEN American Center, finally began on February 21 after numerous false starts. Saro-Wiwa, who is being tried by a special tribunal consisting of government-appointed judges, faces a charge of “incitement to murder.”

Saro-Wiwa is the author of the country’s most popular soap opera, Basi & Company; a novel, Sozaboy, written in a mix of idiomatic and pidgin English; a book of poems, Songs in a Time of War; a book of short stories, A Forest of Flowers; radio plays, and children’s books.

He is also the leader of the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People (MOSOP), and was arrested on May 22 on charges of allegedly inciting Ogoni youths to kill four leading Ogoni figures during a rally on May 21. Colleagues the world over believe the charges have been fabricated to silence Mr. Saro-Wiwa who for years has campaigned to secure basic rights for the Ogoni people. In addition, Saro-Wiwa has waged a campaign against government policies in River State, a rich, oil-producing region, which he alleges has been polluted by Shell, Chevron and other oil companies.

PEN deplores reports that upon his arrest, Saro-Wiwa was held in shackles in a military prison and was badly beaten on several occasions. His trial, which we fear may not meet the standards established by international law, was scheduled to begin first on January 16 and then on February 6 but was postponed each time at the prosecution’s request. Special tribunals have been condemned as grossly unfair by human rights organizations.

PEN also objects to the tactics used by security officers guarding the courthouse where Saro-Wiwa is being tried. At the start of the trial on February 21, military guards blocking access to the court building reportedly allowed entry to an observer from the International Commission of Jurists and to another from Shell Oil Company but impeded access to correspondents from the British Broadcasting Corporation and the opposition press. In addition, unconfirmed reports claim that when defense lawyers objected to the military’s heavy-handed screening policy, military personnel assaulted them. While PEN welcomes the presence of an envoy from Shell, we urge the government to ensure that the proceedings be open to members of the press and nongovernmental organizations.

In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we in PEN believe that Ken Saro-Wiwa has been arrested solely for his work with the MOSOP, including his articles critical of the Nigerian government’s environmental policies in Ogoniland and its treatment of the Ogoni people.

On behalf of the international community of letters, we the undersigned urge the government of Nigeria to release Mr. SaroWiwa immediately and unconditionally. At the very least, we ask the government to:

  • Immediately transfer Ken Saro-Wiwa’s case to a standard, civil court;

  • Allow international media and legal observers full access to all parts of Saro-Wiwa’s trial;

  • Investigate Saro-Wiwa’s allegations that he has been mistreated while in detention.

Chinua Achebe
G.F. Michelsen
Ben Okri
Harold Pinter
Norman Rush
Susan Sontag
Robert Stone
PEN American Center
New York City

This Issue

April 20, 1995