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China, Iran Top Index of Jailed Writers

FILE - A woman looks at a screen image of Nazila Maroufian, detained in Iran for coverage of protests, Nov. 4, 2022.
FILE - A woman looks at a screen image of Nazila Maroufian, detained in Iran for coverage of protests, Nov. 4, 2022.

Tehran's suppression of widespread protests for women's rights has resulted in more than 14,000 people being detained by the end of the year. Dozens of writers were among them.

With those arrests, Iran registered the largest increase globally in jailed writers between 2021 and 2022, with 39 new cases of detention or imprisonment in 2022, according to the 2022 Freedom to Write Index by freedom of expression group PEN America.

Iran is now the second worst jailer of writers in the world, with 57 writers jailed in 2022, the index said.

"As soon as the protests started in September, we did see what I would describe as a preemptive crackdown on the creative and literary and artistic communities," said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, an Iran expert at PEN America. "We did see a number of writers who were basically preemptively arrested because of their profiles, as the protests swelled in September and October."

Iran's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not reply to VOA's email requesting comment.

The annual index documents the number of writers, academics and public intellectuals who were held in prison or detention for their work.

In total, 311 writers were detained around the world, according to the report, which was released Thursday. Of those, 84 were new cases.

Iran ranks second only to China, which with 90 writers detained, tops the PEN index. Saudi Arabia is third, with 20 writers jailed. Those three countries accounted for 54% of the total number of imprisoned writers and public intellectuals, the report said.

Other countries in the top 10 are Belarus, Myanmar and Vietnam, each holding 16 writers, and Turkey with 15.

"Free expression across the world deteriorated in 2022," said Liesl Gerntholtz, who leads PEN's Freedom to Write Center, which produces the index. "I would say that 2022 was probably a worse year for free expression than 2021, including if you look at it through the lens of writers."

Iran was one of the most important freedom of expression cases in 2022, according to Karlekar. The number of jailed writers there more than doubled from 22 in 2021 to 57 in 2022.

"It was really an attempt to silence certain voices and also create a climate of fear and self-censorship," Karlekar told VOA.

The case of Iran is also distinct because of the crackdown's disproportionate impact on women, such as jailed journalist and activist Narges Mohammadi. Iran is now the largest jailer of female writers globally, with 16 of 42 women in custody in Iran, according to the index.

Karlekar told VOA that Iranian writers "have a very long history and tradition of speaking out in Iran, of writing about very critical and timely social scenes."

"The creative community doesn't get targeted as much in other countries, but in Iran, they really are at the forefront of the pushback against the government," Karlekar said.

The targeting of cultural figures is a recognition of the power that they hold, as well as fear of that power, according to Gerntholtz.

PEN has seen a similar pattern elsewhere, including China and Belarus.

Since launching the index in 2019, PEN America has ranked China as the worst jailer of writers globally each year.

China's Washington embassy did not reply to VOA's email requesting comment.

Beijing's repression of Uyghurs in the northwestern region of Xinjiang — where multiple countries have said China is committing genocide and crimes against humanity — is a major driver of China's top jailer status.

"All people in China faced systematic suppression of their free expression rights, but ethnic minorities face a particular, acute suppression," said Angeli Datt, who researches China at PEN America.

If Xinjiang were ranked on its own in the index, the region would rank third globally, with at least 33 Uyghur writers and scholars imprisoned in 2022. Among them is Gulnisa Imin, a Uyghur poet serving over 17 years in prison on charges of "separatism" for her poetry that preserved and promoted Uyghur language and culture.

"The targeting of minority languages and writers who write in Uyghur, Tibetan, Mongolian, or advocate for them, is part of this wider effort by the Chinese government to destroy the cultures of ethnic minorities and try to forcibly assimilate them into Han Chinese culture," Datt said.

"It's a deliberate effort to destroy the cultures and unique identity of these people," Datt added.

Culture is also under threat in Belarus, according to Polina Sadovskaya, PEN America's Eurasia director. Sixteen writers were imprisoned in Belarus in 2022, including six who were first jailed in 2020 following a contested presidential election.

The Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not reply to VOA's email requesting comment.

"There is a total crackdown on everyone speaking, writing, thinking in the Belarusian language," Sadovskaya told VOA. "Even just speaking the Belarusian language on the streets of Belarus can be dangerous for people."

In one case, a bookstore opened in Minsk by an independent publisher of Belarusian literature was forcibly shut down hours after it opened in May 2022.

Unlike journalists and human rights defenders, poets and essayists aren't internationally recognized as a group that is vulnerable to threat, according to Gerntholtz, which means writers often lack organizational support and the infrastructure to protect them.

"They're often highly at risk," she said. "They're highly vulnerable, and they are really unprotected. So, the work we do is really trying to make that more visible."