By Arnold Zable
June 4 2002
In 1960, International PEN, an organisation that represents writers worldwide, set up a “Writers in Prison Committee” in response to mounting concerns about attempts in many countries to silence writers.
Every six months, the committee produces a booklet that documents the cases of writers who have been threatened, imprisoned, tortured, beaten, exiled or assassinated for their contrary views.
Australia, one of the few countries never listed in the booklet, now has its first International PEN “writer in prison” case, that of Ivory Coast journalist Cheikh Kone. He is described by PEN researchers as a writer who has genuine “fears for safety” if he were to be deported to the country from which he fled in October, 2000.
Kone, 26, has been imprisoned in the Port Headland Detention Centre since January, 2001. It was due to the efforts of Melbourne schoolteacher Peter Job that Kone’s story finally came to public notice. Job made contact with Kone when a refugee advocacy group organised a letter-writing campaign to inmates in Australia’s isolated detention centres.
Job first wrote to “detainee number NBP451” in February this year. The man behind the number turned out to be Kone. After a series of letters and phone conversations, Job sent an outline of Kone’s case to International PEN’s Melbourne centre. The information was then forwarded to London for investigation.
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Kone maintains that in the late 1990s he worked as a journalist for the Ivory Coast newspaper, Le Patriote. He was also an organiser in the youth wing of the opposition Rassemblement des Republicains (RDR) party, and a member of the persecuted Dioula ethnic group.
Kone claims he was arrested in 1997 for writing an article that defended RDR leader Alassane Ouattara, and criticised the country’s electoral system. He was detained for three months, interrogated, regularly beaten, and released without any charges being laid.
In December, 1999, the Ivory Coast Government was overthrown by the military. When elections were held in October, 2000, Alasane Ouattara was banned from taking part. RDR supporters demonstrated against this decision and boycotted the elections.
On October 25, in response to a request from the editor of Le Patriote, Kone wrote an article that asserted the election results were being manipulated by the military. Kone says he gave the article to the editor, but it was never published. He maintains that someone who worked for the newspaper leaked information about the article to the military.
Within hours of handing it in, he was warned by family and friends that the military were looking for him. He telephoned his mother but she told him to hang up. She said the military were already at his home. He called his brother-in-law, the newspaper’s accountant, who said he could not speak with him. He then called his father who told him that he should go to quay 17 at Abidjan port where there would be people to help him escape.
The final days of October, 2000, were indeed dangerous in the Ivory Coast. According to Amnesty International’s 2001 country report, RDR activists and supporters were tortured and killed. Amnesty claims that at least 57 opposition supporters, whose bodies were found in a mass grave in Youpougon in October, “were reported to be victims of extra-judicial execution”.
At 3am the following morning, Kone was hidden in a jeep and driven to the Ghanain border. He continued his escape via Togo to Benin, and by boat to Durban in South Africa.
Six weeks later, after several failed attempts, Kone stowed away, with a Nigerian man, on a container ship under a Panamanian flag. They hid in the engine room, where they were discovered after a week at sea.
According to Kone, after the ship arrived in Fremantle in mid-January, 2001, the stowaways were awoken early in the morning by “very aggressive and hostile individuals”. After questioning, they were transferred to Perth, then by plane to the Port Headland Detention Centre, where he was placed in isolation with other stowaways for 10 days.
Since then, Kone’s application for refugee status has been rejected at all levels, including the Federal Court of Australia. His final option is an appeal to the High Court.
I have talked to Kone by phone on several occasions. He is now quite fluent in English. One of his allegations concerns the way in which he has been treated by Department of Immigration officials. Kone says he has been interrogated rather than interviewed. Departmental officers, he says, have been aggressive and adversarial in their approach.
Kone claims that when he was first interviewed on the boat, in Fremantle, he was “very scared”. His English was then poor. He feared he would be immediately deported so he did not reveal the exact details of his case.
The alleged inconsistencies that arose in this initial interview have been held against him ever since. His claim to being a journalist for Le Patriote has been rejected. When Dixe Wills, a researcher with International PEN’S London office, phoned Patrice Guehi, publisher of Le Patriote, he confirmed that Kone did indeed work for the paper. According to Wills, Guehi also agreed that Kone had fled the country after suffering persecution.
Detention is, in Kone’s words, “making me crazy”. He has been imprisoned for almost 17 months, with no end in sight. Kone claims that if he is deported to the Ivory Coast, he will be a marked man because of his journalism, his former political affiliations, and because he is a Dioula and a Muslim.
Cathy McCann of PEN International’s London office agrees that there is cause to believe that his life would be in danger if he were to be repatriated.
These concerns have been reinforced in a letter to Prime Minister John Howard from Eugene Schoulgin, chair of International PEN’s writers in prison committee. “It would appear that there were serious flaws in the due process of his case, in particular the lack of legal representation and provision of an interpreter during his first interview at port by Department of Immigration officials,” Schoulgin writes. In the letter, he urges the Australian Government to reconsider Kone’s case in accordance with its obligations under international treaties to which it is a signatory.
Arnold Zable is a Melbourne writer and a committee member of International PEN’s Melbourne centre.
This story was published in the Melbourne Age on 4 June 2002