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.

The rule of law is now all but broken in Russia. On 20 January 2009, a lawyer for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, Stanislav Markelov, was shot dead in a Moscow street in an apparent assassination after leaving a press conference at the Independent Press Centre. His colleague, journalist Anastasiya Baburova, who was walking alongside Markelov when he was shot, reportedly attempted to apprehend the gunman, but was herself shot in the head, and later died in hospital. Markelov had represented the investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya before she herself had been assassinated in October 2006. Only last week, the four men accused of helping to organise her murder were acquitted by a Moscow court, amid suspicion that those responsible for her death are still at large.

In our own region the record is no less tarnished. Last year the Burmese courts handed down a staggering 59-year combined sentence to a writer/comedian known as Zargana, who was arrested in June 2008 after leading a private relief effort to deliver aid to victims of Cyclone Nargis which struck on 2 May. He is believed to have been sentenced for his outspoken criticism of the government’s slow response to the cyclone, and his opposition activities.

Given Victoria’s bushfires, Australians should find it easy to understand wanting to help your fellow citizens in the wake of a catastrophic natural disaster. Imagine, as you bring essential supplies to the disaster area, being accused of inciting dissent, of subsequently being subjected to an unfair trial, and being stripped of your liberty for decades to come.

Zargana is not alone in prison. Many other opposition activists have been condemned by the Burmese government to harsh sentences in recent months, including journalist Zaw Thet Hwe, poet Saw Wei and musician Win Maw. I have looked hard but have yet to see any condemnation of this crackdown by the Rudd Government. Two weeks ago the Burmese government reduced Zargana’s prison term by twenty-four years. This means he now faces a mere thirty-five more years in prison.

But it is China that locks up more writers than any other country in the world. The 2008 Beijing Olympics highlighted human rights and freedom of expression abuses in China despite the Chinese authorities’ promise to improve conditions and honour the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which it is a signatory. Western journalists reporting on the games suddenly realised their internet access would be compromised during the Olympics, but their inconvenience lasted for a grand total of two weeks. While most of us sat glued to our television screens, more than 40 writers sat in detention in prisons across China for crimes such as “inciting subversion of state power”, “publishing articles critical of the authorities” and “counter-revolutionary crimes”.

Since the Olympics ended, international attention has inevitably wandered from China, but PEN continues to campaign against the ongoing persecution of writers exercising their right to freedom of expression. Harry Nicolaides’ case demonstrates that international pressure remains the most effective method of securing the freedom and safety of writers suffering imprisonment or harassment around the world. It is unfortunate that some writers seem to be more equal than others in the eyes of the Australian government.

Virginia Lloyd is the President of Sydney PEN.

 

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