#100PENMembers No. 87: Ahtam Omer

Today’s #100PENMembers is prominent Uyghur writer Ahtam Omer, recently sentenced to twenty years in prison by the authorities of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China.

Image: Uyghur PEN

He is the author of a well-known short story Child of the Eagle and the popular novel Greetings to the Homeland from Distant Horizon, which depicts the author’s first travel abroad and the comparisons that he makes with his homelife. 

He was taken from his home on 12 March 2017, a month after his brother and nephew. The reason given, according to witnesses, was that he had paid for his brother’s son to study in Egypt.

Egypt is one of several countries blacklisted in the XUAR for travel by Uyghurs because of a perceived risk of their coming into contact with and being indoctrinated by Islamic extremists.

He was charged with “separatism” in a secret trial in the Xuar capital, Urumqi in 2018.

In 2020 several of his books – including Child of the Eagle – were burned by authorities. According to an RSA report ‘The story was initially published in China Ethnicities Literature, a national journal, and long stayed far away from any official criticism as a result. However, by 2017, as a wave of “looking to the past” had begun in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), including in the field of literature, a number of books were rounded up under accusations that they contained separatist content.’

The book had a significant impact on Uyghur society because of its focus on the themes of freedom and the spirit of struggle.

Omer’s arrest took place at the same time as authorities in the region began to detain an estimated 1.8 million Uyghur and other Muslim minorities in vast internment counts. The Chinese government has denied the existence of camps, then, in 2019, began to refer to them as boarding schools designed to provide vocational training and discourage radicalisation of these Muslim Chinese citizens. 

Uyghur PEN is campaigning for Omer’s release and the release of other Uyghur writers facing persecution for their work but also for their religion and ethnicity.

Salil Tripathi, Chair of PEN’s Writers in Prison Committee said: ‘The suppression of human rights in Xinjiang is a colossal tragedy, encompassing the entire range of human rights. The arbitrariness, the secrecy, the unjustness, and the pitiless cruelty of the state has been consistent. The lack of access to information only compounds the tragedy. We wish we could have expressed our outrage earlier. Ahmetjan Juma and Ahtam Omer should not have been jailed at all; and yet they have spent months under incarceration. Such perverse sentencing must stop, as should all the repression the Uyghurs are facing.’

Find out how you can help.

#100PENMembers No. 78: Yang Lian

Yang Lian is a Chinese poet and essayist, a founder-member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre and an active member of the board of PEN International. 

In 1974, as a teenager growing up in communist China, he was sent to Changping country near Beijing to undergo ‘re-education through labour’, where he undertook a range of hard physical tasks such as digging graves.

His poetry became well-known in the West in the 1980s when his sequence ‘Noriland’ was criticised by the Chinese authorities.

This was part of a drive by the Chinese authorities to curb the influence of Western liberal ideas within the Chinese populace. 

Associated with the so-called “misty poets”, Yang Lian’s work was seen as challenging to the Chinese regime because it refused to engage in Communist propaganda:

On his website, he tells Villa La Pietraabout these early experiences: ‘the reasons we had been called misty or ménglóng to me was very simple: because, as I have said, we tried to use our own language to express our own feelings, but an ‘our own language’ means to use the words and the language we can feel, which we can understand, which we feel is linked to our real experience.’ 

‘In this sense, all those huge political empty words like “socialism”, “capitalism”, “history”, “materialism” and so on are empty concepts not real feelings.’ 

He was out of the country visiting the University of Auckland in 1989 when the Tiannanmen Square massacre took place and was involved in protests against the actions of the Chinese government. His work was blacklisted after 4 June 1989 and two collections awaiting publication were pulped. Since then he has lived in exile in New Zealand.

In 2001 Yang Lian helped to found Independent Chinese PEN Centre alongside #100PENMembers Liu Xiaobo

He remains outspoken on issues of censorship in China and elsewhere, describing a worsening in state censorship in his home country which he attributes to a slide backward in recent years, as ‘the government [is] trying to pursue the communist tradition of controlling expression and thoughts’ in an interview with Deutsche Wellewebsite.

His own work is still censored in China and Chinese territories. As recently as 2011, Lian’s ‘The Narrative Poem,’ an autobiographical work, only survived one day in China’s bookshops before all 3,000 copies were withdrawn and destroyed because one part of the poem referred to the Tiananmen Square massacre.

As the poet himself describes in a recent interview, ‘Since the crackdown of the democratic movement and the massacre in June 1989 is still taboo, the poem was registered and watched very closely. The publishing company Huaxia got a warning directly from the government. The very sad result was that the book died.’

‘The awful fact that the book was destroyed actually was a kind of approval of the depth and power of poetry which also meant that even in a time when people said nobody reads poetry, poems were indeed being read.’

Lian has been an active member of the board of PEN International since 2008, advising on PEN’s Free the Word festival events and working as artistic director on the seminar series Unique Mother Tongue.

In 2012 he read and discussed his work at the PEN America Centre

#100PENMembers No. 40: Liu Xiaobo

Liu Xiaobo dedicated his life to campaigning for human rights and free expression in China, serving as President of the Independent PEN Chinese Center from 2003-2007 and as Honorary President of PEN international after that.

In recognition of his lifelong campaigning, Liu received the PEN Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award and the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize.

He died while serving an eleven-year prison sentence for penning Charter 08, a declaration which called for political reform, greater human rights, and an end to one-party rule in China. It was the product of a lifetime’s work around these issues.

He was first arrested in 1989 following his support of the Tiananmen Square protests. Having given up his role at Columbia University in the USA, Liu flew back to China in order to support the student protests for democracy and to encourage the Chinese government to enter into a dialogue with the Dalai Llama. Liu undertook his own hunger strike to demonstrate his support.  

He was arrested again in 1995 and imprisoned again from 1996-1999 on suspicion of inciting subversion of state power.

In 2008, he was arrested along with fellow activist Zhang Zuhua, for his role in co-writing Charter 08. While Zhang was released shortly after, Liu was detained without access to a lawyer or writing materials in the No.1 Detention Centre in Beijing.

“Freedom of expression is the foundation of human rights, the source of humanity, and the mother of truth. To strangle freedom of speech is to trample on human rights, stifle humanity, and suppress truth.”

from ‘I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement’

He was convicted in 2009 for “inciting subversion to state power” and sentenced to eleven years in prison and two year’s deprivation of political rights. The defence was not permitted to present evidence during the hearing, which lasted less than three hours.

Liu was the first Chinese citizen to be awarded a Nobel Prize while still residing in China, in this case, in prison. His absence was represented at the Oslo ceremony by an empty chair, now an important way of noting the silencing of writers in prison, particularly those denied the rights of habeus corpus.

In a statement read in absentia entitled ‘I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement’ Liu described his life before his first prison sentence: 

‘I was a public intellectual, writing articles and books that created quite a stir in the 1980s, frequently receiving invitations to give talks around the country and going abroad as a visiting school upon invitation from Europe and America.’

He outlined his imprisonment as ‘a tragedy for me personally and for a China that has already seen thirty years of reform and opening up.’

Whilst acknowledging that the crimes with which he was charged were both ‘speech crimes’, Liu pointed out that he did not regard the judges, the policemen or even the prosecutors who had brought cases against him over the years as his enemies: ‘Hatred can rot away at a person’s intelligence and conscience.’

China’s ‘enemy mentality’, he argues, ‘will poison the spirit of a nation, incite cruel mortal struggles, destroy a society’s tolerance and humanity, and hinder a nation’s progress toward freedom and democracy.’

He expressed his desire ‘to counter the regime’s hostility with utmost good will, and to dispel hatred with love.’

He died in hospital after being given medical parole for late stage liver cancer on 13 July 2017. He was 61.

His wife Liu Xia remains under house arrest, despite never facing any formal charges.