Iraqi publisher Mazin Lateef Ali, who was abducted in Iraq in January 2020, has been awarded the 2023 International Publishers Association’s Prix Voltaire laureate at an emotional award ceremony at the World Expression Forum in Lillehammer, Norway. The organisers, the International Publishers Association, also announced a Prix Voltaire Special Award for the murdered Ukrainian children’s book author and poet, Volodymyr Vakulenko.
Mazen Lateef has been missing since being abducted in 2020. As a student in Baghdad, Iraq, he started buying and selling books on Al-Mutanabi Street. He went on to establish Dar Mesopotamia for Printing, Publishing, and Distribution in 2007, earning a reputation as a distinguished and highly regarded member of Iraq’s cultural community. Lateef published a variety of books, including several centred around the Jewish communities and individuals of Iraq. Unfortunately, on 31 January 2020, he was abducted at gunpoint and has not been heard from since.
Volodymyr Vakulenko, who received the IPA’s Prix Voltaire Special Award laureate, has written 13 books, including titles on his region’s heritage, poetry, as well as children’s books. He was a winner of several Ukrainian and international literary prizes and was well-known for his strong patriotic stance, his active support to the 2014 Revolution of Dignity and his help to the Ukrainian military in the Kharkiv region since the beginning of the Russian invasion. He was arrested twice following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The second time he was not released. His body was found in one of the mass graves in Izium.
Kristenn Einarsson, Chair of the IPA’s Freedom to Publish Committee said: “Mazin Lateef’s commitment to the literary community and freedom of expression in Iraq should be an inspiration to us all. We call on those who have taken him to return him safely.
“Volodymyr Vakulenko is a symbol of the horrific cultural destruction perpetrated by the Russian army in Ukraine. May we hold him in our memory and celebrate the stories and poems he left us before being taken too soon.
Gvantsa Jobava, Vice President of the International Publishers Association said: “Silencing cultural expression is one of the tools of repressive regimes. We must resist their intimidation and celebrate our brave authors and publishers who help us experience and understand the diversity of our cultures. Mazin Lateef Ali and Volodymr Vakulenko are heroes.”
Accepting the 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire on behalf of his father, Abdulmoahimen Mazin Lateef delivered a video address. He said: “Never before did I imagine that someday I would stand in such a distinguished place to speak about my father, who always used to fill the atmosphere with his conversations about culture and thought. Unfortunately, his voice was silenced, and his sin was that he had a passion for freedom of thought, and sought – through his publishing house – to present readers with everything related to the cultural foundations of Iraq. Sincere thanks to all of you, for recognizing Mazin Lateef. His spirit is present with us right now, urging to find peace by knowing his fate for sure. It is not humanity to deprive a family from visiting the tomb of their father.”
Accepting the 2023 IPA Prix Voltaire Special Award on behalf of Volodymyr Vakulenko, Ukrainian writer and war crimes researcher Victoria Amelina said: “I am a Ukrainian writer speaking on behalf of my colleague Volodymyr Vakulenko who, unlike me, didn’t survive another attempt of the Russian Empire to erase Ukrainian identity. The Ukrainian literary community is grateful for the award. This award is unique, meaningful, and moving to us, partly because no one out of hundreds of other Ukrainian writers who, like Vakulenko, were murdered throughout Ukrainian history ever received such an international award posthumously. I am sure that Volodymyr Vakulenko would like to dedicate this award to them too.”