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Western Artists, Writers Press for Release of Egyptian Author

FILE - Egyptian author Ahmed Naji poses for a photo in Cairo, Egypt, in this undated image. Naji was sentenced to two years in jail on Feb. 20, 2016, by a Cairo appeals court for publishing a sexually explicit excerpt of his novel.

More than 120 high-profile Western authors and artists are calling on the Egyptian government to release author Ahmed Naji, who was convicted and jailed after publishing a novel containing references to sex and drugs.

The literary and human rights organization Pen America on Monday released an open letter to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, signed by the likes of filmmaker and playwright Woody Allen, journalist Carl Bernstein and poet Margaret Atwood.

The letter notes that Naji's 2014 novel, The Use of Life, was excerpted in an Egyptian literary magazine, after having been approved by Egypt's censorship board.

The letter notes that seven members of the country's 2014 constitutional drafting committee criticized Naji's prosecution and two-year prison term as unconstitutional. It also characterizes Naji's imprisonment as "emblematic of the Egyptian government's troubling crackdown on free expression."

"Writing is not a crime," the letter states, and notes that the Sisi government has closed cultural centers and raided art galleries and publishing houses — while jailing several other artists — since coming to power in June 2014.

Pen America is set to honor Naji later this month at its annual gala. His brother Mohamed Naji will accept the group's Freedom to Write award on Ahmed's behalf.