Woody Allen amongst 120 literary figures urging Sisi to release novelist Ahmed Naji

Published May 11th, 2016 - 10:38 GMT
Writers around the world are urging Egyptian President Sisi to release novelist Ahmed Naji. (salon.com)
Writers around the world are urging Egyptian President Sisi to release novelist Ahmed Naji. (salon.com)

At least 120 prominent writers and artists from around the world have signed a petition to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian parliament demanding the release of novelist Ahmed Naji, currently imprisoned for violating public modesty.

Sent on May 8 by PEN America, a group that promotes free expression, the letter said, “As writers and artists, we join PEN America today to protest the unjust imprisonment of our colleague, Egyptian novelist and journalist Ahmed Naji, and request his immediate release.”

Several well-known artistic and literary figures signed the letter, including Woody Allen, Margaret Atwood, J. M. Coetzee, Jessica Hagedorn, David Henry Hwang and Orhan Pamuk.

Photo: Novelist Ahmed Naji. (File photo)

In February, the Cairo criminal court sentenced novelist Naji to two years in prison for violating public morals, after a passage from his novel containing material of a sexual nature was published. Naji was arrested after publishing a chapter from his novel, “The Use of Life” in the literary journal of Akhbar Al-Adab. After Naji was acquitted of charges in January, the prosecution appealed against that acquittal and succeeded in getting it reversed.

“Writing is not a crime," read the letter, "As you know, Egypt’s 2014 Constitution protects freedom of expression under Art. 65. In addition, Art. 67 expressly protects freedom of artistic and literary creation and forbids the jailing of writers and artists for publishing their work.”

Article 67 ensures freedom of arts saying, “The freedom of artistic and literary creativity is guaranteed. The State shall encourage arts and literature, sponsor creative artists and writers and protect their productions, and shall provide the means necessary for achieving this end.”

The letter described Naji’s sentence as “emblematic of the Egyptian government’s deeply troubling crackdown on free expression,” and claimed that charges levelled against him contradict with article no.178 of the Penal Code. The letter also added that Naji’s sentence was slammed by seven members of the 2014 constitutional drafting committee, who described his detention as unconstitutional.

“We urge the Egyptian government to uphold the right to free expression of all citizens, to amend Art. 178 to comply with the constitution’s protections for artistic and literary freedom, and to release Ahmed Naji and other writers imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights,” the letter concluded.

The letter was sent before the organization’s annual Literary Gala, scheduled for May 16 in New York, where Naji will be honored in absentia with the group’s annual Freedom to Write award.

Speaking to New York Times, Suzanne Nossel, the executive director of PEN America, said that they had been in contact with Naji’s lawyer and family before sending the letter, seeking advice on the best approach. She added that Naji did not support the option of seeking pardon from the government as this would make his conviction stand. Instead, he demanded an amendment to the law under which he had been convicted.

By Nehal Mostafa

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