Since the 1980s PEN International has used an Empty Chair at events to symbolise a writer missing from proceedings, either because they are imprisoned, threatened, disappeared or even killed. This highly symbolic move serves as a reminder of the violence and censorship faced by writers all over the world.
Each year PEN Centres worldwide traditionally exhibit an Empty Chair on 15 November – the Day of the Imprisoned Writer. But as we will have finished our #100PENMembers by then, we wanted to use today to gesture toward PEN members and writers all over the world who are incarcerated, who are facing censorship or persecution for their work and who face physical danger every day. This Empty Chair symbolises each of them: Sedigeh Vasmaghi imprisoned in Iran; Osman Kavala facing a life sentence in Turkey; Paola Ugaz facing legal action, harassment and threats in Peru; Kakwenza Rukirabashaija, detained and tortured and still under police investigation in Uganda and countless others from journalists in Mexico to Uyghur writers facing persecution in China.
It also honours the work of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee and those who work around it, compiling lists of cases from all over the world, attending court cases or writing to writers in jail to raise their spirits and to remind them that they are not forgotten.
Campaigning for writers facing persecution is perhaps the most important aspect of PEN’s work globally, particularly at a time when increasingly authoritarian governments are clamping down on free expression, often whilst duplicitously championing free speech.
Today, we stand with all of those whose lives are placed in danger or whose freedom is threatened simply for the act of writing.