Salman Rushdie hopes to “shine a light on the plight” of the imprisoned Syrian human rights activist Mazen Darwish by sharing his PEN Pinter prize with the journalist and lawyer.
Darwish, founding president of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), a 10-year-old organization that has documented the human rights abuses in Syria since 2011, was arrested on 16 February 2012. This March, he was charged with “publicising terrorist acts.” If convicted, he could go to prison for up to 15 years.
“Darwish courageously fought for civilised values – free expression, human rights – in one of the most dangerous places in the world,” said Rushdie. “His continued detention is arbitrary and unjust. He should be freed immediately, and we must hope this award may help, by shining a light on his plight.”
The prize was set up in 2009 in memory of the Nobel laureate Pinter, and is given to a writer who judges decide “exemplifies the spirit of Harold Pinter through his or her engagement with the times,” and who, as in Pinter’s own Nobel speech, casts an “unflinching, unswerving” gaze upon the world and shows “a fierce intellectual determination … to define the real truth of our lives and our societies.” Rushdie was chosen for his “many years of speaking out for freedom of expression, but also for his countless private acts of kindness. When he sees writers unjustly vilified, prosecuted or forced into exile, he takes a personal interest.”
The British winners – who have included Carol Ann Duffy, David Hare, Hanif Kureishi and Tony Harrison – are then asked to share the prize with an international writer “who is active in defense of freedom of expression, often at great risk to their own safety”.
Rushdie announced that Darwish would receive this year’s international writer of courage award. It was accepted on Darwish’s behalf by the Syrian researcher and writer Zaher Omareen.
“There could not be a more appropriate and deserving choice in view of the current situation in Syria, one that speaks directly to the ideals of PEN,” said the author Antonia Fraser, Pinter’s widow.
Freely, president of English PEN, added: “During this time when yet again Syria is capturing headlines around the world, we must not forget that creative defenders of free expression are detained and possibly tortured. Particularly at times of conflict we depend on the voices of calm and principled reason.”