Freedom of expression advocacy group PEN America sent an open letter on Sunday to President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi and Egyptian MPs – signed by over 120 renowned writers and artists, including American filmmaker Woody Allen, Paul Auster and Orhan Pamuk – urging the release of jailed Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji.
The letter was sent by PEN America a few days before its annual Literary Gala, which will be held in New York on 16 May.
The organisation will honour the author in absentia with the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award in recognition of his struggle in the face of adversity for the right to freedom of expression, according to the organisation’s website.
In the letter, petitioners denounced Naji’s jailing, saying that “writing is not a crime.”
The letter says that Naji’s references to sex and drugs are “subjects so relevant to contemporary life that they are addressed through creative expression worldwide, and clearly fall within Egypt’s constitutional protections for artistic freedom.”
Naji was sentenced to two years in jail last February for “violating public decency” and using erotic language in a chapter from his latest novel The Use of Life, which was published in state-owned literary newspaper Akhbar El-Adab.
The verdict came after Naji was cleared of the same charges in January by a misdemeanour court in January, though he was later convicted on appeal on 20 February.
The letter deemed Naji’s sentencing “emblematic of the Egyptian government’s deeply troubling crackdown on free expression,” saying that over the past year, Egyptian authorities closed cultural centres, raided an art gallery and publishing house, and imposed prison terms on several other artists, including film producer Rana El-Sobky and poet Fatima Naoot.
By late 2015, there were at least 23 journalists in prison, making Egypt one of the world’s worst jailers of journalists.
The list of the petitioners include prominent American novelist Philip Roth, Turkish Elif Shafak, Teju Cole and Siddhartha Deb, among others.