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Human Rights Advocate to Lead PEN Work for Writers in Prison

The literary writers organization PEN America has hired human rights advocate Liesl Gerntholtz to expand its support of writers around the world who face imprisonment for their work. (Suzanne Trimel via AP)

The literary writer's organization PEN America is expanding its support of writers around the world who face imprisonment for their work by hiring human rights advocate Liesl Gerntholtz to head the new PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Center.

The new center will build on PEN America's work advocating for imprisoned writers like the Ukrainian freelance journalist Vladyslav Yesypenko, who was first arrested in 2021 in Crimea and remains imprisoned.

PEN America awarded him the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award in 2022 to draw attention to his case in hopes that he will be freed, like many of the prize's prior recipients, thanks to the award's profile and the advocacy of other major international writers.

Yesypenko's wife will accept the award in his stead later this month in New York and PEN America highlighted his case at a demonstration outside the Russian embassy last year and through press releases following his arrest and sentencing to six years in prison in February.

Under Gerntholtz’s leadership, the new center will help PEN America monitor more cases of imprisoned writers in real time and try to help them leave their country or otherwise protect themselves. This work is often done out of the public eye because of the hostile environment the writers face from countries like Egypt, China and Myanmar.

Gerntholtz, who formerly led the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch among other roles, said the center already has a database of some 700 "writers, intellectuals, visual artists, journalists under threat," adding that list will be updated and expanded.

Men are disproportionately represented among imprisoned writers, "which means that we are obviously missing the ways that women are silenced," said Gerntholtz, a native of South Africa.

In another measure of the state of free expression around the world, the Committee for the Protection of Journalists documented the imprisonment of 293 journalists as of Dec. 1, the sixth year in a row that it has documented more than 250 detained reporters.

Within the U.S., CPJ found that 59 journalists were arrested in 2021, usually while they were covering protests.