The proud work of invisible hands

That Australian writer Harry Nicolaides is once again a free man is thanks in part to the efforts of many people he will never meet. Influential but largely invisible behind the work of his lawyer Mark Dean, his family in Melbourne, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, were a band of volunteer letter-writers armed with nothing more than the tools of their trade and a passionate belief in freedom of expression. Since Nicolaides’ arrest in August 2008, friends and members of the Melbourne and Sydney chapters of International PEN wrote many letters to Stephen Smith’s department protesting Nicolaides’ arrest, his conviction of lese majeste (defaming or insulting the Thai King, Queen or the heir-apparent) and his imprisonment. Consistently we called for his unconditional release until soon after his sentencing, when Nicolaides’ family instructed us to lobby instead for a royal pardon. There was precedent for a royal pardon for a foreign national, but none for the overturning of a conviction of lese majeste. The Thai King granted the pardon, and Nicolaides flew home to Melbourne to embrace his mother, who recently suffered a severe stroke resulting in a sadly ironic loss of speech.

While we welcome and celebrate Harry Nicolaides’ freedom, the fact remains that it is only because Nicolaides is an Australian citizen that his conviction made headlines in this country.

This sorry episode is a timely reminder of the precarious nature of free speech, and of our obligation as citizens who enjoy its privileges to protest its absence elsewhere. From reading Australian newspapers you would hardly believe it, but currently there are more than 600 writers – journalists, bloggers, poets, and novelists – suffering imprisonment, harassment and detention around the world for writing an opinion or report of which their respective government disapproves.

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