General: The Prisoner and the Pen: The voices and words of those imprisoned will not be silenced


On 22 October 2020, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) and Amnesty Westminster Bayswater held an online event, The Prisoner and the Pen, to feature the writing, songs and poetry of  imprisoned human rights defenders, and also to celebrate relevant art and literature of activists from Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey and Yemen. The event was held in English, Arabic and Farsi.

The date of this activity was set to be 22 October, to mark the birthday of Ahmed Mansoor, GCHR’s imprisoned Board member, during which, writer and activist İyad El-Baghdadi read from one of Mansoor’s poems, “An Excess of Fire”. He noted that Mansoor “still took the risk to speak out” despite the fact that his life was “a living hell.” Artur Ligęska, who was imprisoned next to Mansoor in Al-Sadr prison in the UAE for eight months, described the terrible conditions in prison, where Mansoor slept on the floor, and how one day he saw Mansoor through the door of his cell and “realised he was dying,” so he made a call to GCHR for help. But he said prisoners brought comfort to each other by shouting through the walls at night, including on Mansoor’s birthday.

Maryam Al-Khawaja read a text from her father Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, GCHR’s co-founder who is serving a life sentence in prison in Bahrain for his human rights activism, as well as her own poem “Letter to my father.” She writes, “Baba the person I saw in the video did not match the image I’ve kept of you in my head. But I recognised the strength in your eyes. The power in your smile.”

Iranian activist Nick Sotoudeh read the poems "Couples in Prison" and "Counting Up, Counting Down" by Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, who is serving over eight years in prison. Richard Ratcliffe, husband of Nazanin Zaghari Ratclifffe, said he got poems from his wife, Ibrahimi, and other women human rights defenders (WHRDs) in Evin Prison, soon after they had been moved out of solitary confinement. “It was really powerful for the WHRDs that their voices hadn't been silenced,” he said. Lawyer and activist Mahnaz Parakand read a text in Farsi written by Atena Daemi, serving new combined sentences of five years handed down recently to prolong her stay in prison. She wrote, “To think, tell and write freely is one of the most basic rights of every human in the world!”

Highlights also included Ramy Essam singing “Segn Bil Alwan”, based on a text by Galal El-Behairy, who has been held in prison in Egypt since 03 March 2018. Essam said of El-Behairy, that “despite this horrible situation there, he's still writing, he's still fighting with his words. We should do everything we can to let him go free as soon as possible.” He noted that he was singing for “the women and girls in prison all over the world.”

While discussing the situation of Egyptian prisoners, including Shadi Habash - who sadly died in prison in May 2020,Mohamed Soltan said, “We can feel the pain and agony in Maryam's words, in Galal's words, in Ramy's voice, the suffering faced by human rights defenders in the Middle East for speaking their mind. A lot of people who have family members and loved ones in prison know that on the spectrum of life and death, prison is somewhere right in the middle.” Soltan, who was released in 2015 after nearly two years in prison, said, “The words that are being spoken today are the light at the end of the tunnel. Please don't forget about these people.” 

Author Yasemin Çongar read a text she translated from the book “I will Never See the World Again” by journalist andwriter Ahmed Altan, currently serving more than 10 years in prison. He wrote, “I am writing this in a prison cell. But I am not in prison. I am a writer. I am neither where I am nor where I am not. You can imprison me, but you cannot keep me in prison.”

Saudi activist and scholar Hala Al-Dosari and lawyer Charlotte Allan spoke about Saudi woman human rights defenders Nassima Al-Sadah and Nouf Abdulaziz, imprisoned since 2018 for their women’s rights advocacy, and read from their work. Al-Dosari talked about the contributions of the women activists of Saudi Arabia who should be celebrated instead of being prosecuted for their activism and seeking real change.

Laura Rawas spoke about her aunt Razan Zaitouneh, the Syrian human rights defender who has been missing since she was kidnapped on 09 December 2013 with her husband and two colleagues. She said, “No one will forget Razan Zaitouneh or the friends who fought and continue to fight alongside her…. Razan is always there; in our hearts and in our minds. When we least expect it, she reminds us what’s important, pulling us from the darkness that threatens to suffocate us.”

Lebanese activist Elsa Saade closed out the event singing the poem “To My Mother” by Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish. Thanks to Khalid AlBaih and Maha Al-Omari for creating original artwork for the event, and to the Global Fund for Women for funding it. 

You can download the event materials here or watch the event on GCHR’s YouTube account at: