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Writers Demand China Release Imprisoned Writers

Three-thousand members and supporters of PEN, the international writers group, have signed a petition demanding the release of imprisoned writers in China. From VOA's New York Bureau, correspondent Barbara Schoetzau reports the group presented the petition to officials at China's UN mission in New York 99 days before the opening of the Beijing Olympics.

Members of the PEN American Center say the petition is simply asking the Chinese government to live up to the pledge Beijing made to improve its human rights record when the nation secured the Olympic Games in 2001.

Larry Siems, the head of PEN's international program, says the group is not calling for a boycott of the Olympics, but is pressuring governments to make sure Beijing complies with its promises.

"We are addressing ourselves not only to the Chinese government but to our own governments," said Larry Siems. "PEN is an international organization. In every country of the world where there is a PEN Center, PEN members are asking their own governments to make this a top priority in all of their discussions with the Chinese authorities during the Olympic year."

PEN believes 39 writers are currently being held in Chinese prisons. Human rights lawyer Li Jianhong represents five of them. Monday evening he accepted PEN's Freedom to Write Award on behalf one of his imprisoned clients, Internet writer Yang Tongyan, who is serving a 12-year sentence for articles critical of the Chinese Communist Party. Li, who has lost his license to practice law, says human rights cannot exist in a country where people can be arrested for simply speaking or writing.

"We all know that freedom to write is the right for all writers," said Li Jianhong. "But for a Chinese writer it is simply a dream. For Chinese writers freedom in politics is not the priority, the freedom to write is our priority."

Author Salman Rushdie is one of the literary world's best-known victims of attempted censorship and threats. He spent almost a decade living underground after one of his novels provoked violence in some Muslim nations and a fatwa calling for his death. Rushdie says pressure from PEN can be effective.

"Totalitarian regimes are oddly susceptible to being shamed in public," said Salman Rushdie. "They don't like it. They have this odd desire to be popular. If you can say loudly enough the things that make them ashamed, PEN has a long history of getting writers out of jail in very oppressive regimes because the government was ashamed of the spotlight. So it is very important to make the spotlight as bright as we can."

The petition also calls on Beijing to stop detaining, harassing and censoring writers and journalists in China, to end Internet censorship and to reform laws that suppress freedom of expression.