Writers at Risk: An Editorial
The Washington Post

[While the Portland Oregonian carries a five-part series called "Christians Under Siege," the Washington Post is the first (and possibly the only) major newspaper with an opinion on the plight of atheist writer Taslima Nasreen, whose death is being demanded by religious mobs in Bangladesh. -- Cliff Walker]

Sunday, 18 October 1998

Friends of Nigeria must hope that Wole Soyinka's instincts are right as the writer returns to his country, four years after fleeing in fear of his life. The 1986 Nobel laureate's decision signals his confidence that political conditions have improved under Abdulsalami Abubakar, who succeeded dictator Sani Abacha upon the latter's unexpected death in June. Mr. Soyinka's passport was confiscated in 1994 after he filed suit challenging the legitimacy of the military government, which had overturned the results of an election in 1993 and jailed the presumed winner, Moshood Abiola. Mr. Soyinka managed to flee. The Abacha government subsequently jailed and hanged another writer and human rights activist, Ken Saro-Wiwa.

The new Abdulsalami government has announced cancellation of the charge of treason that Mr. Abacha had leveled against Mr. Soyinka in his absence. By returning -- though reportedly only for a visit -- Mr. Soyinka makes himself a hostage to political stability and to Mr. Abubakar's commitment to basic freedom. His celebrity could help brace that commitment by keeping world attention on Nigeria's record in this regard.

It's a service that several other prominent and brave writers are also providing. In Bangladesh, the feminist novelist and doctor Taslima Nasreen -- who fled to Europe four years ago to avoid trial for advocating that the Koran be revised -- returned to her native country to tend, she said, her gravely ill mother. She is now in hiding, and the government has so far resisted public demonstrations and rock-throwing riots from those who demand her immediate arrest.

Finally, there is Salman Rushdie, whose safety evidently remains dependent on the complex interplay of religious and political forces inside Iran. The reformist government recently disavowed any connection with the decade-old fatwa calling for the author's death. The purportedly independent religious foundation that had offered a $1 million reward to Mr. Rushdie's killers reacted by raising the bounty to $2.5 million. His fame and status render him -- like them -- mineshaft canaries for shifting currents of repression in countries that need all the scrutiny on the subject that they can get.