By Janet Galbraith
‘… the protection of the right to freedom of expression – the freedom to express ideas without fear of attack, arrest or other persecution – has been at the heart of International PEN’s work since it was formed in 1921. PEN’s Charter pledges that all members will oppose any form of suppression of freedom of expression in the country and community to which they belong, as well as throughout the world wherever this is possible’.
November the 15th 2015 marks the 34th anniversary of the annual Day of the Imprisoned Writer, ‘an international day that recognises writers who have suffered persecution as a result of exercising their right to freedom of expression’. Each year PEN International, its members and other concerned writers mark this day to raise awareness of the imprisonment, killings and threats writers are subject to.
Seldom has there been a focus on the persecution of imprisoned writers within Australia. Two notable cases are those of two writers detained in the early to mid 2000’s in Australia: Cheikh Kone who became International PEN’s first major Australian writer in prison and Iranian writer, journalist and political activist, Ardeshir Gholipour. Both were freed after a PEN International campaign. Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani held in detention on Manus Island for 27 months has recently been named an honorary member of PEN and his case for asylum supported by the human rights organisation.
Notably PEN International’s approach to the Australian’s government in 2004 resulted in communications between the Australian government and the noted human rights group and the freedom of the above writers. This year the letter sent to the Australian government by PEN International on behalf of Behrouz Boochani has garnered no response whatsoever. This is not terribly surprising as many working in solidarity with those detained in Australia’s immigration detention industry have noted that silence and obfuscation are one of the hallmarks of the Australian government’s (non)response to concerns of human rights abuses.
This year Australia has become under increases observation by PEN International as freedom of expression and information is further curtailed and legislated against. Sydney PEN informs us that:
“… at the recent PEN International Congress in Quebec City, the first resolution adopted by the Assembly of Delegates of PEN International, was about Australia’s Anti-Terrorism Laws. The resolution relates to the constraint of freedom of expression in the name of countering terrorism, especially about operations on Manus Island and Nauru relating to asylum seekers”.
This comes at a time when many international human rights organisations speak out against the Australia’s failure to comply with international law and conventions and as the litany of human rights abuses, cruel, degrading and inhuman treatment of people seeking asylum grows. When the Turnbull Government is asked for comment on conditions ‘tantamount to torture’ on people in off-shore detention camps, the strategy seems to be the same as that offered the UN and other international bodies: silence and obfuscation. This is not a new strategy nor is it specific to Australia. Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites’ founding members Professor Perera and Professor Pugliese have identified “parallels between the US extra-legal prisons at Guantanamo and elsewhere and our Pacific equivalents” naming the off-shore detention centres on Manus Island and Nauru as “Australia’s version of the secretive US ‘black sites‘ that operated during the war on terror”.
Writers detained in Australia’s black sites on Manus and Nauru, as well as the immigration gulags on Christmas Island and throughout the mainland of Australia, bear much of the brunt of these secretive operations and the deliberate curtailing of freedom of information and freedom of expression. Many writers involved with Writing Through Fences, a loosely connected group of writers writing from within Australia’s immigration detention industry, report being subject to intense surveillance, beatings, imprisonment without charge, prolonged detention, unnecessary restraint, isolation, threats of rape, and denial of appropriate medical treatment in attempts to silence them.
The breaking of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers, by successive governments in Australia has been discussed in terms of the Border Force Act that sees workers and journalists who disclose human rights abuses within Australia’s detention industry at risk of imprisonment. However, such discussions have rarely included recognition that writers and human rights defenders detained by Australia in our black sites and mainland detention gulags are themselves subject to cruel, degrading and in human punishment as a result of their work.
Mark Isaacs highlight the targeting of writers: “the Nauruan police took Dev away from the camp in handcuffs. They said to him, ‘Goodbye Mr Journalist’, an implication that this was revenge for him having contact with Australian media”. Behrouz Boochani writes in a report to the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders: One time they put me in the jail after the hunger strike. You know in Foxtrot we had no violence at that time. I was in jail just for reporting to the outside about the hunger strike. He writes further, in a private letter, I remember when they moved me from the Lorengau jail to Charlie the officers said: “He is in here because he is a journalist”.
Many of those writing from within immigration detention centres are forced to withhold or change their names for fear of further punishment. At the same time, most of these people also speak of writing as their responsibility, privilege and duty. Others have reluctantly become writers in order to survive. One man detained on Manus Island for 27 months has said to me: “I am not a writer but I must write. I must write to tell the world what is being done to us. I must write to defend our right to live”.
Within this context, writing from within these black sites and detention gulags is understood to be a life-giving practice of survival and a courageous and necessary tool of resistance. A young man from Myanmar incarcerated in Manus Camp wrote to me earlier this year:
“I am a very different young man … I believe it will be difficult for you to accept that I have never been to school or college … With no education but a strong sense of determination I started learning English from scratch in the refugee camps … Being here I have written 1000 pages about my miserable life … Giving this privilege God wants me to raise my voice on behalf of millions of asylum seekers and refugees around the world who are being denied freedom in a safe place” (Khan – not real name).
Artist turned poet, FB writes:
“And the silence breaks its silence
setting free it’s songs from the depths.
The shouts of sleepers
release the voices of the voiceless
A man held for 2 years in detention on Nauru writes:
“As a victim of injustice and politics, I was forced to face reality and the realisation that I needed to find a way to deal with all the emotions that I was unable to cope with. I took up writing and art” (Ravi).
Asserting existence and belonging before and in spite of displacement and detention a writer from Somalia, interred in immigration detention in Australia writes (excerpt from ‘A message from sweet home’):
OH SWEET GIRL
You were born inside of me.
Why did you leave me like this?
Have you forgotten my warm nights and bright breezy days?
Have you forgotten lying on my sand with a big beautiful smile on your face?
Oh my dear… unforgettable moments!
You were fearless, a strong and beautiful child…
On this Day of the Imprisoned Writer, Australia is in the spotlight. We are being held to account for the atrocities enabled by the tax payers of this nation and perpetrated in our name. We cannot say we do not know. The voices are many.
Writing Through Fences joins with Write of Asylum and calls on writers and human rights defenders to stand with, and open space for, those who speak and write from within the detention gulags.
“I die slowly, so slowly in this tight cocoon
with no space to shout’”(M, 2015).
Opening space is important and so is solidarity. When asked about his fears around his reporting from our black site on Manus Island, Boochani said:
“I feel more secure because a campaign to sup-port me has taken shape”.
We who are not detained do have a responsibility, privilege and duty to be aware of how we fill spaces, and how we may open them. We also have a responsibility, privilege and duty to listen to and stand with imprisoned writers, to call on the Australian government to end the punishment of those who speak and write from within the gulags and demand their closure. The voices of the writers imprisoned in our detention gulags are calling, they are screaming “Freedom! Freedom!”
Founder and facilitator of Writing Through Fences
Coordinator Write of Asylum
Founding member of Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites