Non-profit organisation PEN America on Thursday criticised the selection of Austrian author Peter Handke for this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature. The organisation expressed shock over Handke’s selection who, they said, “used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide”.

“PEN America does not generally comment on other institutions’ literary awards,” the group that champions free expression in the United States said in a statement. “We recognize that these decisions are subjective and that the criteria are not uniform. However, today’s announcement of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Literature to Peter Handke must be an exception.”

The Austrian author was widely criticised after he had alleged that the Muslim community in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s capital city of Sarajevo had massacred themselves, but blamed the Serbians instead, according to The Guardian. He actively defended Serbian dictator and alleged war criminal Slobodan Milosevic, who was charged in 2001 with the genocide in Bosnia during the war between 1992 and 1995.

Following Milosevic’s death in 2006, Handke spoke at his funeral in Serbia and said that he was “close to Yugoslavia, close to Serbia, close to Slobodan Milosevic,” according to The Washington Post. In 1999, author Salman Rushdie had called Handke the “moron of the year” in an article for The Guardian after the Austrian author’s support to Milosevic’s regime.

On Thursday, PEN America said they were committed in their fight against dishonest publication. “We are dumbfounded by the selection of a writer who has used his public voice to undercut historical truth and offer public succor to perpetrators of genocide, like former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic,” the statement said.

The organisation said they rejected the decision to celebrate the “linguistic integrity” of Handke, who had questioned war crimes. “At a moment of rising nationalism, autocratic leadership, and widespread disinformation around the world, the literary community deserves better than this,” the group said. “We deeply regret the Nobel Committee on Literature’s choice.”

The committee had announced that Handke was being awarded for “an influential work that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience”. Last year, the academy had decided to postpone the 2018 prize following a controversy over allegations of sexual misconduct and leaks of names of some winners. This was the first time the academy cancelled the Nobel Prize in Literature since World War II. The Swedish Academy on Thursday gave the 2018 award to Polish author Olga Tokarczuk. She won it “for a narrative imagination, that with encyclopedic passion, represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life”.

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