Eritrean poet Asrat named 2020's International Writer of Courage

Eritrean poet Asrat named 2020's International Writer of Courage

PEN Pinter Prize 2020 winner Linton Kwesi Johnson has announced he is sharing the prize with Eritrean poet, songwriter and journalist Amanuel Asrat, who is named 2020's International Writer of Courage. 

Asrat is credited for the poetry resurgence in Eritrea in the early 2000s and he is the former editor of the literary newspaper Zemen (meaning The Times). He was arrested in September 2001 amid a crackdown on private media, since which time over a period of 19 years it is believed he is still detained incommunicado in a maximum-security prison, Eiraeiro.

Johnson revealed Asrat had been awarded the honour–bestowed on those persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs—in a live online event hosted by the British Library on Monday (12th October).

Asrat's writings detailed the daily life of the underprivileged, and explored themes of war and peace, notably depicting the negative side of conflict. He co-founded a grassroots literary club called Saturday’s Supper in 2001, prompting literary clubs to emerge in all major Eritrean towns. While he was editor-in-chief of Zemen, the newspaper was the leading literary newspaper in Eritrea and helped shape the cultural landscape; Asrat himself was a popular art critic.

He has been incommunicado since his arrest on 23rd September 2001, at which time the Eritrean government began a campaign to silence its critics, arresting opposition politicians, students and many journalists, and the editors of all privately owned newspapers. According to PEN, the situation of Asrat and his fellow writers "remains unclear" and it is unknown whether charges have been brought against them or if they have ever been brought to trial. The organisation has said it is believed they have been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment and Asrat is believed to be among the few surviving journalists arrested in 2001.

Johnson paid tribute to Asrat: "Keeping a citizen incarcerated, incommunicado, without charge or trial for nearly 20 years is the kind of egregious brutality that we associate with totalitarian states and dictatorships. As a gesture of solidarity from a poet of the African diaspora, I have chosen the Eritrean poet, songwriter, critic, and journalist Amanuel Asrat as the Writer of Courage for 2020."

Daniel Mebrahtu, Amanuel Asrat’s brother, commented: "We, the family of Amanuel Asrat, are very pleased, honoured and humbled to accept this award on behalf of our son and brother, Amanuel Asrat. Many thanks to English PEN and Mr Linton Kwesi-Johnson. Amanuel is suffering under the harsh conditions of the Eiraeiro dungeon in Eritrea for 19 years and counting. His whereabouts are not known. We don’t even know whether he is alive or dead. We wish Amanuel was aware of this prize and honour somehow. We ask the international community to intervene in his case and other prisoners of conscience in Eritrea, and demand their immediate release. Thank you for the recognition, for your thoughts and prayers. Thank you for your constant support. We really appreciate it."

Cat Lucas, Writers at Risk programme manager at English PEN, added: "We are honoured to be able to recognise Amanuel Asrat and his work with the PEN Pinter Prize for an International Writer of Courage 2020. We remain hopeful that this year will finally see him released and reunited with his family after almost two decades apart. In the meantime, we hope that our PENWrites campaign will provide an opportunity to raise greater awareness of his situation, to amplify calls for his release, and to continue to show our support for him and his family."