At PEN International there is a tradition: During the organization’s general assemblies, empty chairs are left prominently vacant as a reminder of imprisoned writers and journalists around the world.
This year, for the free expression watchdog’s 80th anniversary – marked this week in Kyrgyzstan’s capital, Bishkek – three empty chairs reminded the assembly of three Central Asian men imprisoned for their writings and activism: Azimjon Askarov from Kyrgyzstan, Ilham Tohti from China and Vladimir Kozlov from Kazakhstan.
PEN President John Ralston Saul noted that Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev extended a personal invitation to the organization. During a private meeting, Atambayev himself raised the case of Askarov, an Uzbek journalist and rights activist serving a life sentence for complicity in murder and other crimes connected to the June 2010 ethnic violence. Human rights groups have pointed to glaring irregularities during his trial and say Askarov was framed to stop him from documenting police abuse. While PEN and the president “disagreed” over the continuing imprisonment of Askarov, the fact that the president invited PEN to discuss the issue with him was itself “significant,” Saul said.
PEN, however, is not only interested in imprisoned writers. In a conversation with EurasiaNet.org, Saul noted concern with the proliferation of anti-gay legislation in Russia and Africa and homophobic political agitation in Kyrgyzstan. For PEN, this is essentially, “a restriction on the right of self-expression, which for PEN, as an organization primarily concerned with the freedom of expression, is unacceptable,” Saul said. To date, despite heated debates, Kyrgyzstan has not passed anti-gay legislation, although rights activists called a bill that parliament considered earlier this year even more “draconian” than the Russian law it was modelled on.
Still, a group of PEN luminaries including Hori Takeaki, PEN International Secretary; Dalmira Telepergenova, PEN Central Asia President; Carles Torner, Acting Executive Director; and Yann Martel, author of Life of Pi, recognized Kyrgyzstan’s unique place in the region. “In Central Asia, Kyrgyzstan is the only country engaged in a democratic experiment. […] We think that the fact that we were invited here—that we are here now—speaks to the historical significance of this moment,” Saul said.
On October 2, the PEN delegates formulated two resolutions, one on the imprisonment of journalists and writers, and one on the increasingly negative environment surrounding gay rights in the region. In particular, Yann Martell noted that the resolution concerning Askarov is “calling for his release and [PEN] will continue to work in that direction.”