Last night was the twentieth time the Awards have been given. The winners are chosen as representative of all the writers that PEN tries to protect every year. Of the 30 recipients chosen over the years, 28 of them have since been released from incarceration or imprisonment and some were released within a few months of the awards presentation. This year the two winners Mohammed Benchicou of Algeria and Rakhim Esenov of Turkmenistan, represent 1010 writers in 98 countries that PEN is trying to protect or rescue from persecution.
Year after year when Goldsmith has stood before the audience at the annual Pen Dinner to announce the year’s recipients, she concludes her speech with the caution: “Keep the Spotlight On!” – on the persecuted and the countries doing the persecution. Last night when she made that remark she added that she never actually expected to see a recipient appear in person. But last night was the exception.
Rakhim Esenov of Turkmenistan (a former Soviet Satellite Republic), is a novelist, historian and freelance correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Two years ago, Mr Esenov was questioned by members of the Turkmen Ministry of National Security (MNB) when he returned to his country after receiving medical treatment abroad. During his interrogation, he suffered a stroke, and was taken to a hospital. Two days later they interrogated him again, then arrested him and put him in prison.
Rakhim Esenov, recipient of the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award with Diane Sawyer
The initial accusation was of smuggling 800 copies of his banned novel Ventsenosny Skitalets (The Crowned Wanderer) into Turkmenistan from Russia. He denied the charge and it was dropped, but then they came up with a new one: “Inciting social, national and religious hatred using the mass media.” After a year in prison, he was released but was required to remain in Turkmenistan instead of traveling outside the country (to Moscow) to receive badly needed medical treatment not available in his country.
Last night, thanks to massive efforts of PEN and the US Embassy in Turkmenistan, and for the first time in the history of PEN dinners, Barbara Goldsmith greeted the recipient in person. Mr. Esenov was allowed to travel with his daughter to New York to receive his award.
And this was Mr. Esenov’s speech of acceptance:
Asalam aleikum! Peace be unto you!
Dear friends, esteemed men and women of the pen,
Gratitude is like love which speaks not. The more a person swears his love, the less he is believed, for great love proves itself not through words but through deeds. But I cannot keep silent. My tongue will burn, as the Turkmen say.
I’ll be brief. Thank you, America. Thank you to your noble sons and your worthy daughters whose efforts gave me freedom and brought me here to this wonderful hall. It is very noble and humane to fight for someone you don’t know, and to see them as a human being.
Would that I could mention everyone by name. Would that I could embrace all 3,100 members of PEN American Center who experienced another’s pain, another’s suffering.
In my heart I embrace you.
In the Gospels it says “Hallowed be Thy name.” And so I say to you, “Hallowed be your name, dear friends.”
There was a second PEN/Barbara Goldsmith award winner last night – Mohammed Benchicou of Algeria who could not be there because he is in jail in Algeria. Mr. Benchicou owned a newspaper called Le Matin which was closed during the run-up to the 2004 Algerian presidential election. Mr. Benchicou’s “crimes” included publishing a satirical book about the Algerian president entitled “Bouteflika, an Algerian Fraud.”
He was arrested in 2003 on return from France, charged with currency violations. He was sentenced to a two-year prison term and a fine of 20 million dinars ($280,000.)
His prison sentence has been increased by five months as a result of two separate libel charges in connection with the publication of two articles in Le Matin (which has since been closed). There are approximately 50 other cases pending against him and he is reportedly taken to court once or twice a week for press charges dating back to 2002.
Mr. Benchicou is in a cell which he shares with 50 other people, infested with lice and vermin. His health has deteriorated and he is seriously ill. He cannot write with his right hand now due to paralysis on the right side of his body. Despite family requests, he has not received medical attention. Whether or not Mr. Bouteflika is a fraud, his treatment of Mr. Benchicou has focused the world on the character and the politically weak underpinnings of his presidency.
Besides the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards, there was also the PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award and the Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award.
Paul Newman, via video introduced his award and then his business partner, author A.E. Hotchner presented the award to Sibel Edmonds. Ms. Edmonds grew up in Iran under the Shah and, as a very young girl, immigrated at the beginning of the regime of the Ayatollah Khomeini, first to Turkey and then to this country.
After 9/11, she was hired by the FBI (because she is fluent in Farsi, Turkish, Azerbaijani and English) to translate messages being passed. In her experience, she learned that her information that was relevant to the 9/11 attacks was being systematically ignored and when she blew the whistle, the cover-ups began.
In 2002 she was fired by the FBI claiming that she had “committed security violations and had disrupted the translation unit.” In her speech, she quoted the late President Harry Truman who said: When even one American – who has done nothing wrong – is forced by fear to shut his mind and close his mouth, then all Americans are in peril.”
Sibel Edmonds, recipient of PEN/Newman’s Own First Amendment Award
There are many people who hold some kind of power in government who either ignore or disdain Harry Truman’s consideration about the truth. There are many others among us who are totally baffled by its outrageousness. Ms. Edmonds is not one of them. She is among the brave and has not stopped putting out the message about her experience, what she learned and what powers-that-be have wanted to silence.
The 2006 Jeri Laber International Freedom to Publish Award was given to Mohamed Hashem of Egypt. Mr. Hashem is owner and managing director of Dar Merit, one of the foremost independent literary publishers in Egypt. He is an outspoken advocate of free expression and founder of the writers’ movement “Writers and Artists for Change,” dedicated to peaceful but provocative protest of the Mubarek regime. At the 2006 Cairo International Book Fair, on the eve of a major demonstration by Writers and Artists for Change, Hashem was beaten by the police and his papers confiscated.
The PEN Literary Gala is a very glamorous annual event, at least in the eyes of this writer, as well as deeply serious in its objectives. Last night they raised $1 million for their cause. The crowd gathered for cocktails in the museum’s rotunda included many many distinguished and often famous writers. The list of Guest Writers and Trustee Hosts (at least one seated at every table) is truly an astounding congregation for one room at one time. (see sidebar)
Last night’s Gala Chairs were Tina Brown, Laurence J. Kirshbaum, Virginia Mailman and Honorary Chair was Toni Goodale with Gala Vice-Chairs Christine Schwarzman and Annette Tapert. Master of Ceremonies was Diane Sawyer, and Ron Chernow, the distinguished biographer of Morgan, Rockefeller and the Warburg Family, as well as the new president of PEN (succeeding Salman Rushdie), gave the welcoming remarks.
“Fear” is the word the writer must overcome when he or she sets words to paper, Diane Sawyer pointed out last night. Fear is the friend of the dictator and enemy of the people. PEN’s business is getting beyond and overcoming that fear.
See what you can do to help – it’s for each and every one of us. Visit their web site: http://www.pen.org/