Imprisoned Burmese blogger Nay Phone Latt to receive top PEN honor
The award, which honors international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression, will be presented at PEN's Annual Gala on April 27, 2010, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Writer, historian, and PEN member Barbara Goldsmith underwrites the award.
"Nay Phone Latt represents a younger generation of Burmese who are longing for freedom and willing to pay the cost of speaking out in its defense," said Kwame Anthony Appiah, president of PEN American Center. "That he is a blogger reflects the global truth that Internet censorship is one of the great threats to free expression today. That Nay Phone Latt is also a poet reminds us that every society speaks with the voice of the imagination as well as through its non-fiction writers. We honor him. We thank him. We ask all who have any influence on the government of Burma to press for his release."
Nay Phone Latt, 29, is an influential Burmese blogger and political dissident. He is a youth member of the National League for Democracy, the opposition party in Burma that will soon be dissolved by new election laws, and also a young entrepreneur who owns several Internet cafes in Rangoon. His Burmese language blog was praised by the BBC and other foreign media outlets for providing invaluable news regarding the military crackdown in Myanmar (Burma) in 2007 during a period of particularly strong censorship.
Nay Phone Latt was arrested on January 29, 2008, under section 5 (J) of the 1950 Emergency Provision Act, which criminalizes any attempt to "disrupt morality" or to "disrupt security, stability or the restoration of order." Initially held at the Interior Ministry, he was transferred in early February 2008 to Insein Prison, famous for its inhumane conditions, where he had restricted contact to his family and legal assistance. After being held for over nine months, Nay Phone Latt was sentenced by a specially-assembled court to a combined 20 years and six months in prison on November 10, 2008. The court, formed to prosecute political dissidents within prison walls, was closed to the public, and Nay Phone Latt's mother was banned from attending the hearing. Nay Phone Latt was not allowed legal representation after his lawyer was sentenced to prison time for contempt while protesting unfair hearings.
The total sentence imposed upon Nay Phone Latt consisted of two years for violating Article 505 (b) of the Criminal Code, which punishes defamation of the state, three years and six months for violating Article 32 (b) of the Video Act, and 15 years for violating Article 33 (a) of the Electronics Act. The Electronics Act, which contains provisions establishing long prison terms for disseminating news that is considered to tarnish the image of the government, has been used increasingly to silence political voices since the protests in 2007.
On November 16, 2008, Nay Phone Latt was transferred from Insein Prison to Pa-an Prison in Karen state, 135 miles from Rangoon. He joins the ranks of political dissidents who have been transferred to isolated regional prisons with poor or nonexistent medical care and limited food. Many families of these prisoners have reportedly been prevented from visiting. On February 20, 2009, a court in Rangoon reduced Nay Phone Latt's sentence by eight and a half years, leaving him to serve 12 years in prison. Family members continue to express concern for Nay Phone Latt's health.
In announcing the award today in New York, Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems praised Nay Phone Latt's "courageous use of new media to convey critical information and articulate the frustrations and hopes of his generation." Siems urged the Obama administration to press the ruling junta to release Nay Phone Latt and all political prisoners in advance of Myanmar's upcoming elections - the first in 22 years. "Nay Phone Latt's blog called attention not only to the despotism of the ruling junta, but to Myanmar's vibrant youth and creative culture; in it, we glimpse the promising future that could accompany an easing of restrictions on freedom of expression in his country. The Obama administration should seize this critical moment in Myanmar's history to advance U.S. promises to defend Internet freedom around the world and to ensure that people like Nay Phone Latt are free to help shape their country's future."
This is the 24th year that the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award has honored an international literary figure who has been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression. Candidates are nominated by International PEN and any of its 145 constituent PEN centers around the world, and screened by PEN American Center and an Advisory Board comprising some of the most distinguished experts in the field. The Advisory Board for the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Award includes Carroll Bogert, Associate Director of Human Rights Watch; Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation; Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, International Vice-President of International PEN; Aryeh Neier, President of the Open Society Institute; and Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
The Freedom to Write Award is an extension of PEN's year-round advocacy on behalf of the more than 900 writers and journalists who are currently threatened or in prison. Forty-five women and men have received the award since 1987; 31 of the 35 honorees who were in prison at the time they were honored were subsequently released.
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