Eritrean poet, critic and editor-in-chief of the leading newspaper Zemen, Amanuel Asrat has been named International Writer of Courage at the PEN Pinter Prize ceremony. The Writer of Courage is awarded to someone who has been persecuted for speaking out about their beliefs. The winner of the PEN Pinter Prize for 2020, Linton Kwesi Johnson, made the announcement in a live online event hosted by the British Library this evening, Monday 12 October.
Amanuel Asrat is also the first featured writer in PENWrites – English PEN’s international letter-writing campaign in solidarity with writers in prison and at risk around the world.
Amanuel Asrat is credited for the Eritrean poetry resurgence of the early 2000s. An award-winning poet and songwriter, his writings detailed the daily life of the underprivileged, and explored themes of war and peace. Unlike wartime Eritrean poetry popular at the time, he depicted the negative side of conflict. In addition, Amanuel Asrat co-founded a grassroots literary club called ‘Saturday’s Supper’ in 2001. Similar literary clubs soon started to emerge in all major Eritrean towns.
Amanuel Asrat was also editor-in-chief of the newspaper ዘመን (Zemen, The Times). The newspaper was the leading literary newspaper in Eritrea, and helped shape the cultural landscape. Asrat himself was a popular art critic.
In 2001, the Eritrean government began a campaign to silence its critics, arresting opposition politicians, students and many journalists. As part of this crackdown, Amanuel Asrat was arrested on 23 September 2001, alongside the editors of all privately-owned newspapers. He has been incommunicado since.
The situation of Asrat and his fellow writers remains unclear. It is unknown whether charges have been brought against them or if they have ever been brought to trial. They are believed to have been subjected to torture and other ill-treatment, including lack of access to medical care. Almost two decades on from his arrest, Amanuel Asrat is believed to be among the few surviving journalists arrested in 2001, detained in the purpose-built maximum-security prison Eiraeiro. Continue in English Pen