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Jailed novelist Ahmed Naji to receive PEN award

The imprisoned novelist and journalist Ahmed Naji will receive the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award in May, the PEN American Center announced in a statement Thursday.

Naji was sentenced to two years in prison in February for public indecency after he published excerpts from his novel Istikhdam al-Haya (The Use of Life) in the state-owned Akhbar al-Adab literary magazine last year. He was immediately taken into custody from the courthouse after receiving the maximum penalty.

“Naji’s case is emblematic of Egypt’s escalating crackdown on artistic freedom in flagrant disregard for its own constitutional protections and at the expense of the country’s rich cultural traditions,” PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel said in the statement.

“PEN hopes that this award will spur writers, readers, advocates and world leaders to press Egypt to release Naji immediately and to stop treating creativity as a crime,” she wrote.

The case against Naji was initially filed by Hani Saleh Tawfik, who claimed the excerpts threatened his sense of morality. The prosecution then charged Naji with publishing sexual content constituting “a malicious violation of the sanctity of morals and good manners.”

A Cairo court had initially acquitted Naji in January, saying the Penal Code is too rigid to apply to matters of self-expression, and determining a lack of malicious intention from Naji. The prosecution immediately appealed the verdict.

PEN America has honored more than 50 writers across the world, “recognizing their struggle in the face of adversity for the right to free expression,” the statement read.

Forty writers were in prison at the time they received a PEN award. According to the statement, 35 were subsequently freed due in part to the attention and pressure generated by the award.

The newly established Barbey Freedom to Write Award is funded by the Edwin Barbey Charitable Fund, directed by Peter Barbey — whose family ranks 48th on the Forbes list of America’s wealthiest families — and his wife, Pamela.

“The PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award represents a chance to join PEN’s long tradition of championing writers whose voices and art are under threat, and to bring their plight to the world’s attention,” Barbey wrote.

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