PEN Canada Vice-President, Emily M. Keeler, tells the story of Advocate Kate Creasey’s work on the behalf of imprisoned Azeri writer Rashad Ramazanov. To learn more about the PEN Canada Advocates Program, click here. This piece was originally published in PEN Canada’s 2016/17 Annual Report.
Happy Birthday, Rashad! PEN members are encouraged to send greeting to Rashad Ramazanov for his birthday on January 1. Details here.
Grains of Light
How one PEN Canada member opened a door for imprisoned Azeri writer Rashad Ramazanov
Kate Creasey, a writer and film producer living in Montreal, joined PEN Canada’s Advocates Program thinking that she would spend a few hours every Sunday penning a letter to an imprisoned writer. The Advocates Program equips PEN Canada members with addresses and ideas for writing to jailed writers all over the world. These letters are a demonstrative act of solidarity; proving to writers that they are missed, that they haven’t disappeared. Sustained correspondence can also indirectly inform both prison guards and governing bodies that a writer hasn’t been forgotten and that there are people fighting for his or her release.
So Kate began writing to Rashad Ramazanov. Rashad is an Azerbaijani-based author of seven books and numerous articles under the pseudonym Rashad Hagigat Agaaddin. On May 9, 2013, Rashad, who also posted criticisms of the Azeri government to social media– was arrested on drug possession charges. The Azeri governments alleges that the Baku police found just over nine grams of heroin in Rashad’s pants pocket. These charges are spurious. Rashad’s lawyer, told Human Rights Watch that his first visit with Rashad after his detention was delayed for a week, and that Rashad had been beaten by the police. For the first several days of his pre-trial detention, Rashad’s wife, Könül, was not given any information about where he was being held, or for what reason. She was heavily pregnant with their second child at the time. In November 2013, Rashad, who has never been known to use heroin, was sentenced to nine years in prison on charges for the illegal possession and sale of a large amount of narcotics.
Three years later, Kate wrote her first letter to Rashad. It was, in part, about the snow in Montreal. Kate and her husband decided they would regularly send postcards, and longer letters when they had time to write them. “I was wondering about if he had a family, and so on, all the sorts of things that one starts to imagine when one’s taking the act of faith to write to somebody,” Kate recalled at a meeting in the PEN Canada offices earlier this spring.
And then, in December 2016, PEN Canada received word from renowned Baku-based human rights defender, Intigam Aliyev, that Rashad had received just one of Kate’s postcards, but not the letter. (Kate had numbered the postcards, and mentioned the letter in one of them.) Shortly thereafter, Könül, Rashad’s wife, found Kate’s husband on Facebook and sent him a message. Kate is fluent in Turkish–having lived Instabul for five years–and figured the language’s proximity to Azeri would mean that she and Könül could connect. “It was a quiet day at the office, and I thought maybe I’d see if Könül was on WhatsApp,” Kate explains. “I was thinking, what time is it in Baku? Eight o’clock? So I sent her a message and that’s how it started. Rashad and Könül had lived in exile in Turkey for a year follwoing dire threats against Rashad in 2009, and as it turned our Könül and Kate could communicate with relative ease, and a little help from Google Translate. “Being in contact with Könül has been really important in terms of everything we’ve been able to do subsequently,” Kate says.
On January 23, Könül told Kate that Rashad had been put in solitary confinement, and that he would be held there for two weeks. “I immediately got in touch with Brendan de Caires at the PEN office,” Kate says. In addition to reaching out through PEN’s Canadian diplomacy network, Brendan connected Kate to colleagues at PEN International, and Norwegian PEN. The secretariat immediately began to compose a Rapid Action Network notice in order to bring international attention to Rashad’s plight. Because of Kate’s personal connection to Könül, the secretariat was able to work with Könül to choose language that would prevent further danger. “Her concerns with the initial draft were legitimate,” Kate says. The notice had originally urged PEN members all over the world to writer directly to Azerbaijan’s President, Ilham Aliyev, despite the fact that Rashad’s imprisonment was the result of his criticizing the President. Könül suggested that such a directive could be perceived as a personal attack on the government, and that it could worsen Rashad’s conditions: “It’s very important for the relationship,” Kate says, about involving Könül in the process, “that she feels like there’s trust and that we’re being responsive to the reality that she’s got to live in Baku on a daily basis. She’s got two small kids, and this is all happening within the space of a week.”
Because she happened to be in Washington D.C. for her job that same week, Kate decided to find a spare afternoon to pay a visit to the Azeri embassy. “It was the most surreal thing,” she says. “I went unannounced–I didn’t want to give them an opportunity to say no. I was surprised that the Azeri Embassy was very unguarded. No gates, no nothing. Just ring the doorbell and a guy comes to the door.” Kate smiles. Her visit is but one example of the polite and considered persistence with which she has worked to help Rashad. “I said, My name is Kate, I’m a television producer, I’m doing some work on behalf of PEN Canada, I’d like to talk to somebody about the situation of somebody in Azerbaijan who’s not receiving mail from Canada.” By framing her concern so politely, and by omitting mention of Rashad’s imprisonment, Kate managed to get herself invited in the embassy for tea. “He took me into the embassy, put me in this room that has all of these pictures of the Aliyev family all over it sat me down and asked me if I wanted tea, I said, Of course. Absolutely. My goal in going was to see if we could open up a line of communication, so it was important to be as friendly as possible.” By the time Kate had identified that her concern was regarding a political prisoner, it was too late for the official at the Embassy to rush her back out onto the street. “It would be so rude. That would break every rule of Central Asian hospitality,” she says. The official stiffened and said he was unsure how to help, but he asked her to make a formal request, in writing. “So, I waited a couple days, and when I was back in Montreal wrote him an email. Thank you so much for your generous hospitality last week. I’m so pleased we had an opportunity to meet. As I said, I’m concerned about this man. And I’ve also learned that he’s in solitary confinement. This is most concerning. What are you going to do?” Kate sent similar missives to Canadian and Azeri embassies in neighbouring nations.
Working with PEN Canada, PEN International, and a network of diplomatic actors, Kate was able to sustain a brief but effective campaign for Rashad. Essentially, she created a headache for bureaucrats, asking urgent questions about Rashad’s treatment and keeping his name appearing on dockets. Exercising such diplomacy and using soft power to keep politely forefronting Rashad’s situation, Kate (along with the interventions of PEN centres around the world) created a chain of mentions and line items that resulted in Rashad’s release from solitary confinement. He was also granted access to his lawyer, a right he had routinely been denied before Kate’s interventions. In February, Könül was permitted a weekend-long conjugal visit with Rashad, and he was able to see their children for the first time in years. And, as per Kate’s request, he received access to some of his mail.
Kate and Könül are keeping in touch. Kate has received photos of the stack of mail Rashad’s been working his way through, and has been actively trying to get Rashad access to books. He prefers philosophy, and through a friend who works in Turkish publishing, Kate’s been able to send Rashad a small library. Könül has told Kate that all but one of her postcards has made it through.
But Rashad is still in prison, with five years yet on his sentence. Azerbaijan continues to regularly jail writers and editor who has criticized the state. In 2013, the country expanded its laws against defamation to include all online digital expression, and has been enforcing these laws against users of social media. In 2016, two prominent Azeri journalists, Khadija Ismayilova and Raud Mirkadirov, were arrested on spurious charges and sentenced to serve terms of seven and six years, respectively, in prison. Raslim Aliyev, an independent reported and the acting chair of the Institute for Reporters’ Freedom and Safety, died in Baku as the result of a severe beating in August, 2015. Our work is not done.
But for now, Kate’s letters and postcards are making it through. And while Rashad is still is prison, he and Könül are now aware that there is a vast network of writers working in solidarity on his behalf. Shortly before Rashad was put in solitary confinement, at the beginning of what would become a sustaining friendship, Könül wrote Kate an important message: “This really feels like a breath of fresh air. We’re so tired. For four years we’ve been struggling. We’re suffering. We’re out of energy.” Being a member of PEN is joining a fraternity of writers, yes. But it’s also a sorority of fighters, working together to aid writers in peril. Kate’s ability to foster a trusting connection with Könül through her letters to Rashad, and to user the power of polite persistence, have brought some light into the dark corners of Baku Prison#2, where Rashad still spends his days.
And with yet more polite persistence, one day, he’ll hopefully be able to receive that missing postcard at home, with his family, The postcard, Kate says, had a poem on it: Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet’s “Baku at Night.” A self-described “romantic revoluationary,” Hikmet was exiled from his native Turkey and sought refuge in the Soviet Union. Hikmet’s poem describes beholding the Azeri capital in the pitch black of the night with a sense of soaring freedom and intimately felt nostalgia: “Baku is a sunny wheat-field./ High above on a hill,/ grains of light hit my face by the handfuls,/ and the music in the air flows like Bosphorus.”
When Kate told Könül what was on the postcard, she laughed. “She said, It’s way too Soviet for them,” Kate says, “and we chucked and said some writers, their power never goes away.”