Pen Empty Chair at MWF18

Truth-telling is a dangerous business. Each year, many writers around the world are unjustly detained, imprisoned, tortured, forced into exile and in other ways silenced, in order to hide or ignore the issues that they bring to light. In 2016, PEN International’s worldwide case list included over 1000 writers: journalists, bloggers, poets, songwriters, novelists, playwrights.

Since the 1980s, PEN International has used the Empty Chair at events to symbolise a writer who could not be present. The Empty Chair often represents specific writers, rather than all writers at risk, and will once again take centre stage at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival. With support from PEN Melbourne, the Melbourne Centre of PEN International, we acknowledge the Empty Chair at selected sessions for the following writers and activists:


Dr Kem Ley, Cambodian human rights defender
Empty Chair at Death of Democracy 

A political commentator and outspoken critic of the Cambodian government, Kem Ley was shot and killed in Phnom Penh on 10 July 2016. According to police, an arrested suspect later ‘confessed’ to the killing, claiming his motive was an unpaid debt, yet Ley’s widow and the suspect’s wife dispute this claim. Ley’s killing occurred against a backdrop of escalating attacks on human rights defenders and political opposition, and Cambodia’s well-documented history of political violence.


Dareen Tatour, Palestinian poet
Empty Chair at A Better World Starts Here

An Israeli court convicted Dareen Tatour of inciting violence and supporting a terrorist organisation over comments she made on social media. The conviction is related to a YouTube video, in which she recites one of her poems entitled Resist, my people, resist them. Tatour was arrested in October 2015 and spent three months in different Israeli prisons before being transferred to house arrest. After nearly three years under house arrest, Tatour was sentenced to an additional five months imprisonment in July 2018. The court also added a six-month suspended sentence to Tatour’s jail time. Tatour says: “The court said I am convicted of terrorism. If that’s my terrorism, I give the world a terrorism of love.”


Behrouz Boochani, Kurdish writer, filmmaker and journalist
Empty Chair at Live from Manus

Behrouz Boochani is a Kurdish-Iranian writer, filmmaker and human rights advocate currently in his fourth year of incarceration on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. While the PNG government has granted refugee status to Boochani and he is now nominally ‘free’ to move around the island, the situation on Manus is highly restrictive, volatile and dangerous. Boochani has faced harassment for reporting to the Australian media and other organisations on conditions inside the detention centre and allegations of human rights abuses. PEN International maintains Boochani should be permitted to have his case heard in Australia, and to have it expedited as soon as possible. Behrouz’s book, No Friend but the Mountain: Writing from Manus Prison, has recently been published and, despite it’s gruelling subject matter, is a poetic, humane and philosophical work of great beauty. His continued coverage of Kurdish and Iranian politics, published in Kurdish newspapers, means that he would be at risk of imprisonment should he return to Iran.


Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, Vietnamese Blogger
Empty Chair at Michelle de Kretser: The Life to Come

Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who blogs under the name ‘Me Nam’ or ‘Mother Mushroom’, is a Vietnamese political and environmental activist. After years of government surveillance, harassment, and intimidation, Me Nam was arrested in Khanh Hoa in October 2016 and charged with ‘conducting propaganda against the state’. In June 2017, Me Nam was convicted and given a 10-year prison sentence for writing blog posts which were deemed defamatory of the Communist regime.


Oleg Sentsov, Ukrainian film director
Empty Chair at Eulogy for My Career

Oleg Sentsov, a Ukrainian film director, was detained in Crimea in May 2014 and sentenced to 20 years in a Russian prison on charges of terrorism on August 25 2015. Appeals against the original verdict were rejected by the Russian Supreme Court in November 2015 and June 2016. He is currently serving out his sentence in Prison Colony No. 8, also called “Polar Bear Prison,” north of the Arctic Circle. On May 14 2018, Sentsov began an indefinite hunger strike.


Robert Walker, Aboriginal poet
Empty Chair at Frontier Wars: Henry Reynolds

Robert Walker was a Kokatha man born in South Australia. In his early twenties, Walker was already a recognised, intelligent and insightful Indigenous poet. Imprisoned in Fremantle prison for various offences, Walker died a violent death in August 1984. He had been brutally assaulted by prison officers for over 20 minutes. The coroner‘s finding was ‘death arose by way of misadventure’, and no-one was charged with his murder. Walker’s well known poem ‘Solitary Confinement’, written in the early 1980s, remains one of the most powerful protests about the inhumane treatment of Aboriginal prisoners in our prison system.


Narges Mohammadi, Iranian Journalist
Empty Chair at Ronan Farrow: Power, Abuse & Facing Facts

Narges Mohammadi is an independent journalist and human rights campaigner representing political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in legal proceedings. She also campaigns against the death penalty in Iran. In 2016, Narges was sentenced to 16 years imprisonment; five years for ‘meeting and conspiring against the Islamic Republic’, one year for ‘spreading propaganda against the system’ and 10 years for her work advocating against the death penalty.


Rana Ayyub, Indian writer and journalist
Empty Chair at The Personal is Political: Bri Lee & Zoya Patel

PEN has grave concerns about the sustained social media vilification of writer and journalist Rana Ayyub, author of the award-winning book Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up, which explored the organised violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. Following a now proven ‘fake tweet’ attributed to Ayyub, in which she purportedly defended child rapists, she has been trolled, traumatised and threatened with gang rape if she continues ‘talking against Hindus and Modi’. This concerted, malicious misrepresentation and open intimidation has serious implications for Ayyub and, indeed, all journalists.


Daphne Caruana Galizia, internationally-acclaimed journalist
Empty Chair at They Can’t Kill Us Til’ They Kill Us

Daphne Caruana Galizia, an internationally-acclaimed journalist, was murdered in Malta in October 2017 in a targeted car bomb attack. Galizia was responsible for revelations in the Panama Papers. She also exposed corruption on her blog, where she published investigative reports on Maltese politicians across party lines. The Maltese authorities are yet to conclude a full, independent and impartial investigation into her assassination. Galizia’s son, Caruana Galizia, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and according to independent security advice, his life would also be endangered should he return to Malta to stand trial.


Zehra Doğan, Turkish journalist and artist
Empty Chair at Home: Marwa Al-Sabouni and Ben Quilty

In March 2017, Zehra Doğan was sentenced to two years and 10 months in a women’s maximum security prison. Her crime was creating a painting of a Turkish city that had been heavily damaged by state security forces. Despite arguing that the painting formed part of her work as a registered journalist, Doğan was charged with having connections to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which is fighting an insurgency against the Turkish government.