NEW YORK, Apr 19 (Reuters) Turkmen dissident writer Rakhim Esenov was honored in New York by a US writers' group that promotes free speech and was the first winner in two decades to accept the award in person.
The PEN American Center, a branch of the international literary association, said yesterday it was the first time the 78-year-old writer had been allowed out of Turkmenistan since he was detained in March 2004 on charges of smuggling copies of his banned novel into the country. He has since been under house arrest.
Turkmenistan, a former Soviet republic bordering Iran and Afghanistan, has been run by autocratic leader Saparmurat Niyazov since 1985. He calls himself ''Turkmenbashi'' (Father of the Turkmen) and cultivates a personality cult.
Barbara Goldsmith, the author after whom PEN's annual Freedom to Write Award is named, said Esenov's attendance at the awards ceremony had been in doubt until the last minute because the government initially denied him permission to make the trip.
After diplomatic protests, he was allowed to leave, although he was escorted to the airport by US Embassy staff, and arrived in New York on Monday.
''I expected this evening would mark yet another year like all those that have gone before,'' Goldsmith said, introducing Esenov to the audience of writers and supporters of PEN, which campaigns for imprisoned writers around the world.
Algerian journalist Mohammed Benchicou was named the second recipient of the award, but the former director of Le Matin newspaper was unable to attend because he is in prison.
Goldsmith said Esenov's attendance proved the value of such awards in shining a spotlight on repressive governments that tried to stifle writers. ''We hope to shame governments into releasing those unjustly imprisoned,'' she said.
Esenov, who was arrested in 2004 for smuggling copies of his banned novel 'Ventsenosny Skitalets' (The Crowned Wanderer) into the country, described himself as a patriot and said the award was a recognition of the Turkmen literary tradition and culture as well as of his own work.
He said Turkmenistan had not made proper use of its independence in the past 15 years.
''I write and I am unable to publish anything. In the 15 years that the country has been independent, not one single work of mine has been published,'' he told Reuters, admitting to some concern how he would be received on his return home.
Egyptian publisher Mohamed Hashem was also honored for his efforts as an independent publisher of works critical of the government.
Sibel Edmonds, a translator of Iranian descent who was fired by the FBI after she raised allegations of espionage in the agency, was presented with PEN's Newman's Own First Amendment Award for defending free speech in the United States, the organization said.
REUTERS SRS PC1027