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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

PEN Writers Speak Out Against War

Nobel Prize-winning author G?nter Grass and other writers Tuesday condemned the military campaign in rebel Chechnya and warned against the erosion of democratic freedoms in Russia.

Addressing the annual congress of International PEN, which campaigns for authors' rights and freedom of expression, they said writers had a moral obligation to speak out against censorship, persecution and state-sponsored violence everywhere.

"We have to demand an end to the war against the Chechen people. And likewise an investigation, under UN auspices, of all war crimes committed by either side," said Grass, winner of the 1999 Nobel Prize for Literature.

He said the war was "without reason, without mercy." Moscow says it is fighting "international terrorists" in Chechnya and has ignored Western calls to halt the offensive and to begin peace talks with the separatist leaders.

The government has vowed to probe allegations of human rights abuses but has refused to allow an independent UN investigation.

"[Literature] does not turn a blind eye. It does not forget. It does break the silence," Grass told several hundred delegates attending the first PEN congress to be held here.

Grass, 72, is a veteran campaigner for left-wing causes and is best known for his epic 1959 novel about Germany's Nazi past, "The Tin Drum."

Novelist Andrei Bitov, president of the Russian arm of International PEN, said the congress gave writers a valuable chance to speak out against a war that remains broadly popular despite the large loss of life among both Chechen civilians and federal troops.

"The whole of Russian society has suffered from this war," said Bitov in a news release.

The president of International PEN, Mexican poet and novelist Homero Aridjis, said some members had expressed doubts about holding the congress here because of the war.

"Our presence here does not imply support for Russia's policy in Chechnya or its attempts to curb freedom of expression," he said.

But he added that the decision to hold this year's congress in Russia was rich in symbolism.

"To read the history of Russian literature is to read the history of political harassment of writers, from Dostoevsky to Alexander Solzhenitsyn."

The great 19th-century author Fyodor Dostoevsky narrowly escaped execution for his political activities and was exiled to Siberia. Solzhenitsyn, like Grass a Nobel Prize winner, recounted life in Stalin's labor camps in his "Gulag Archipelago."

Now 81, Solzhenitsyn lives as a recluse just outside Moscow and was not expected to attend this week's PEN gathering.

In his speech to the congress, Aridjis said delegates would discuss threats to writers and journalists around the world.

International PEN was founded in London in 1921 and has been linked down the decades with many famous writers including Britain's H.G. Wells and Polish-born Joseph Conrad, U.S. playwright Arthur Miller and Germany's Thomas Mann.

It has about 12,000 members, all published authors, and 137 regional offices around the world.