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What Does it Take to Be Named a ‘Writer of Courage’?

Eritrean poet Amanuel Asrat, who was arrested in 2001 and is believed still to be detained in a maximum security prison, has been named International Writer of Courage by Linton Kwesi Johnson. Asrat’s writing looks at the daily life of the underprivileged, exploring themes of war and peace, and the negative side of conflict. He was arrested on 23 September 2001, along with the editors of all privately owned newspapers, as part of the Eritrean government’s campaign to silence its critics, and has not been heard from since. According to English PEN, Asrat and his fellow writers are believed to have been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, including lack of access to medical care, while detained in the purpose-built maximum-security prison Eiraeiro. The free speech organisation, which awards the PEN Pinter prizes in memory of the late Harold Pinter, said that it was unknown whether charges have been brought against them or if they have ever been brought to trial. Johnson won the PEN Pinter prize earlier this year, for his “political ferocity” and “tireless scrutiny of history”. Accepting the prize last night, the Jamaican dub poet named Asrat, a poet, critic and editor-in-chief of the newspaper Zemen, as the International Writer of Courage winner with whom he will share his prize. English PEN has just launched a year-long letter-writing campaign asking people around the world to send messages of solidarity to writers of courage, with Asrat the first featured writer.