(New York, February 6, 2007) – Forty-five writers from 22 countries have received Hellman/Hammett grants this year in recognition of the courage with which they face political persecution, Human Rights Watch said.
“The Hellman/Hammett grants aim to help writers confront and survive persecution,” said Marcia Allina, who coordinates the Hellman/Hammett grant program.
Governments have used military and presidential decrees, criminal libel, and sedition laws to silence this year’s group of Hellman/Hammett awardees. They have been harassed, assaulted, indicted, jailed on trumped-up charges, or tortured merely for providing information from nongovernmental sources. In addition to those who are directly targeted, many others are forced to practice self-censorship.
Hellman was prompted by her experiences during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, when she and her long-time companion, the writer Dashiell Hammett, were questioned by US congressional committees about their political beliefs and affiliations.
More than half of this year’s 45 grant recipients hail from three countries – China (nine), Vietnam (eight) and Iran (seven) – all of which have sad records of harassing and persecuting journalists, poets, playwrights, essayists, bloggers and novelists who dare to express ideas that criticize official public policy or people in power.
Some of this year’s recipients have asked to remain anonymous because of possible continuing danger to them and their families.
More than 500 writers have received grants over the 16 years of the program. The Hellman/Hammett grants, announced each spring, have distributed more than $2.5 million to date. The Hellman/Hammett program also makes small emergency grants to writers who have an urgent need to leave their country or who need immediate medical treatment after serving prison terms or enduring torture.
Short biographies of 36 recipients of the 2007 grants follow:
- Maung Maung Kyaw Win (Burma), reporter, editor, publisher, translator of English and author of numerous short stories, has done much of his work using pseudonyms. International journalists and researchers who entered Burma disguised as tourists knew him as the man to see for help gathering information during their visit. In early 2006, Maung Maung fled to Cambodia after receiving a death threat from military officials for having arranged for a US reporter to meet with a Burmese dissident. He has been granted refugee status by the United Nations and is waiting for settlement outside of the region.
- Vann Nath (Cambodia), writer and painter, 62, is one of seven survivors of a secret Khmer Rouge prison known as Tuol Sleng, or S-21, where more than 14,000 people were tortured and executed during the late 1970s. His life was spared because he was put to work painting portraits of the Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot. Vann Nath escaped after the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia. When the prison was converted to a genocide museum, he returned to paint the scenes he had witnessed. They hang in the museum today. In the mid-1990s, Vann Nath wrote a memoir, A Cambodian Prison Portrait, which is the only written account by a survivor of Tuol Sleng. The book and his paintings provide a rare glimpse into one of the Khmer Rouge’s most brutal institutions. Vann Nath has continued to write and paint about his experiences despite government efforts to limit information about this chapter of Cambodia’s history. Vann Nath will likely be a key witness in the forthcoming tribunal established by the UN and Cambodia to try Khmer Rouge leaders for their crimes during the Pol Pot regime. In recent years, Vann Nath has been battling serious complications of kidney disease.
- Njaru Philip (Cameroon), journalist, has been repeatedly harassed, assaulted, arrested, detained, and tortured over the past 10 years in retaliation for his investigative writings of corrupt practices and human rights violations by government and security officials. In 2004, he fled to Equatorial Guinea, was arrested and repatriated to Cameroon. He then went to Nigeria, but returned to Cameroon after several months. In November 2005, he was accused of being a journalist for the Southern Cameroons National Council, an English-speaking minority claiming rights of self-determination. He was beaten by paramilitary police and left unconscious, after which he was hospitalized for several weeks.
- Cui Zi En (China), novelist and literature professor, was stripped of his salary, barred from teaching and forced from his on-campus apartment for openly admitting his homosexuality. When he refused to admit that homosexuality is a disease, he was ordered into a hospital.
- Huang Qi (China), internet journalist, was accused of publishing on his website articles critical of the 11th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and convicted of “inciting the overthrow of the government.” He was sentenced to five years in prison, held in a high-security prison and regularly beaten. Released in 2005, he resumed writing, but his website is filtered in China. He is watched by the police and cannot find a job.
- Huang Xiang (China), age 65, is one of the greatest poets of 20th century China and a master calligrapher. As a result of ideas expressed in his poetry, he spent more than 12 years in Chinese work camps and prisons, where he suffered physical and psychological torture. His family was also mistreated. He has lived in the United States since 1997 and advocates for human rights issues in China, even though he receives anonymous phone calls warning him to stop if he ever wants to visit China.
- Li Jianhong (China), pen name Xiao Qiao, journalist, founded the independent website Qimeng Luntan (Enlightenment Forum) and became its webmaster and then founded Ziyou Zhoungguo Luntan (Free China Forum). Both sites are now blocked. Since 2004, she has been threatened and harassed by police. Her phone is tapped and disconnected. She is restricted to home arrest and repeatedly called in for questioning. She was fired from her teaching job, then forced from an administrative position, and potential employers are warned not to hire her.
- Liu Di (China), pen name Stainless Mouse, was detained without trial for more than one year during 2002-2003, for posting articles critical of the Chinese government on the internet. She works as a translator and writes for internet publications, but she cannot find a job, having been branded a dissident writer.
- Ouyang Yi (China), freelance writer, was blacklisted and interrogated after the Tiananmen Square massacre for his involvement in the student pro-democracy movement. In 1991, he was detained and questioned about his role organizing an underground pro-democracy magazine. In 2002, he was detained for the fifth time in six years for managing a website that disseminated ideas of freedom and democracy. He is living under police surveillance, and has not been able to get a steady job.
- Zhao Yan (China), reporter for various newspapers and journals, was known for investigative reports on official corruption, for helping farmers seeking compensation for land that had been forcibly confiscated and helping obtain the release of the wrongfully convicted. In 2004, while working as a researcher for the New York Times, Zhao Yan was arrested on charges of fraud and “suspicion of providing state secrets to an overseas organization.” After a closed trial in June 2006, he was found guilty in August and sentenced to three years in prison for the alleged fraud. The charge of divulging state secrets was dropped.
- Jenny Johanna Manique Cortés (Colombia), journalist, was editing a Sunday section of the Bucaramanga newspaper Vanguardia Liberal that reported on victims of local and regional armed conflict when she began receiving telephone calls warning that she was on a paramilitary “black list” of journalists targeted for assassination. Manique moved to Bogota, but the threatening phone calls continued, so she fled to Peru and worked as freelance reporter. With the political climate in Colombia unchanged, she has entered a year-long refugee program in Argentina.
- Maria Luisa Leiva Viamonte (Cuba), journalist, is one of the founders of Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), a group of wives and mothers of imprisoned dissidents. She was in charge of the international section of the magazine De Cuba, published by a group of independent journalists, since shut down in the face of threats of arrest by the security police. After the crackdown in the spring of 2003, many Cuban journalists stopped writing or would not sign their names, but Leiva continued to write critical articles and sign all her work. She drafted most of the Damas de Blanco declarations, despite being followed, watched, and threatened by the Security Police.
- Pierre Mujomba (Democratic Republic of Congo), internationally renowned playwright, fled after a series of threatening incidents following the Kinshasa premiere of his play, La dernière envelope, a political satire. He moved and changed his telephone number, but local authorities continued to search for his whereabouts. He came to the US and has held several university residencies while writing English versions of his plays.
- Musa Saidykhan (Gambia), journalist, wrote and edited at several publications before becoming editor-in-chief of The Independent in April 2005. Within a month, a printing ban was imposed and the paper was forced to close. In June 2005, it reappeared using a photocopying format. Government authorities opposed to its editorial stance put Saidykhan under surveillance. In October 2005, he was detained and interrogated for having invited South African President Thabo Mbeki to support an investigation into the killing of a journalist and arson attacks on some Gambian private media. Saidykhan’s most brutal run-in with the government came in March 2006, when he was arrested and detained for 22 days without charge. During this time, he was held in solitary confinement, deprived of family visits and tortured. After release, he fled with his family to Dakar.
- Irakli Kakabadze (Georgia), editor, is the author of five books and scores of short stories and poems. His novel, Allegro or the Chronicle of One Year, was awarded the best literary creation of the year by the Georgian magazine Tsiskari in 1990. Kakabadze is also active in the civil rights movement in Georgia and has written numerous articles on the need for democratic reform. In September 2005, he suffered a concussion at the hands of unidentified attackers, likely a result of the views he has peacefully expressed. He was arrested three times in 2006, and held for 30 days in July in relation to public expression of his views.
- Ali Afshari (Iran), 33, political analyst and human rights advocate, was imprisoned in 2000 and held in solitary confinement for 328 days for his role in the student movement. He has written numerous articles and co-authored a book on political theory. When he left Iran in 2005, the Judiciary sentenced him to six years in prison.
- Hassan Zarezadeh Ardeshir (Iran), 29, journalist, has written extensively on the political environment and human rights issues in Iran. He has been arrested several times and spent nearly eight months in Evin prison in 2003. In 2005, he was forced into exile, but continues to report on human rights violations in Iran from abroad.
- Ali Ashraf Darvishian (Iran), 65, one of Iran’s most prominent and prolific post-revolutionary writers, has published more than 20 books, including fiction, children’s stories, and a 20-volume collection of Iranian folk tales. For the past four years, government censors have banned the publication of his works.
- Roozbeh Mir Ebrahimi (Iran), 27, worked as an editor and reporter for a number of reformist dailies that have since been shut down by the government. He investigated several high-profile human rights cases, including the murder of a Canadian-Iranian photojournalist in 2003. He was detained in September 2004 and held in solitary confinement for 60 days. He has written two books on contemporary Iranian political history that have not received government permission for publication.
- Ensaf Ali Hedayat (Iran), 41, journalist, has reported extensively on human rights violations in the Iranian province of Azerbaijan. He was arrested in June 2003, spent 74 days in solitary confinement and 18 months in prison. He currently lives in exile and is writing his prison memoirs.
- Shahram Rafizadeh (Iran), 34, investigative journalist and blogger, also writes poetry and literary criticism. During the reform era, Rafizadeh was well known for writing about the role of Iranian intelligence agents in the murder of several writers and intellectuals in 1998. He was detained in September 2004 and was held in solitary confinement for 86 days.
- Arash Sigarchi (Iran), 28, journalist and blogger, started his career in journalism at the age of 15. He was arrested in January 2005 after he reported on human rights violations on his blog. Originally sentenced to 14 years in prison, an appeals court reduced the sentence to three years. He was recently diagnosed with cancer and is receiving treatment outside of prison.
- SS Ali (Iraq), university professor and literary commentator, was targeted by the Baathists for teaching ideas that run counter to Baathist party positions. After the fall of the Baathist government, he resumed writing, but was again stopped, this time by the Islamist Mujahideen.
- Peter Makori (Kenya), reporter in the western provinces, covered land grabs, destruction of forests, water development and people murdered on suspicion of being witches. He was arrested eight times between 1994 and 2003 on various charges of publishing “alarming reports,” “defamatory matter,” murder, and once without charge. He was once detained for elevan months, denied food and medication, and beaten by police who threatened to kill him. Trials dragged on, and charges were eventually dropped or he was acquitted. Makori is currently a fellow at the University of Missouri School of Journalism in the United States.
- Lydia Cacho (Mexico), freelance writer, has published a book of poetry, two novels and The Devils of Eden, an exposé of politically connected people whom she cited as having connections to prostitution and child pornography. A businessman whom she had named sued her for defamation and calumny. She was arrested and not permitted to see her lawyer before being released on bail.
- Pedro Valdez Bernales (Peru), journalist, was arrested in 1992 and falsely accused of collaborating with the Maoist Shining Path guerillas. In 1993, he was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison by a special “faceless” tribunal of the Lima Supreme Court. Two years later, he was found innocent by an anonymous tribunal of the same court. In prison, he was physically and mentally tortured. Upon release, he packed up his family and moved to Canada as a refugee.
- Gilbert Rwamtwara (Rwanda), radio journalist, was threatened for critical reporting about Rwanda’s Gacaca (community justice) courts. In October 2005, a police officer friend urged him to leave the country if he did not want to “disappear or face prison.” Within a week, Rwamtwara packed up his family and fled to Lusaka, Zambia where he was granted refugee status.
- Do Nam Hai (Vietnam), 48, a banking professional, was one of the principal organizers of the April 2006 public petition campaign “Manifesto on Freedom and Democracy for Vietnam” and the Democracy and Human Rights Alliance, a virtually unprecedented movement in recent years with broad geographical representation. Police have confiscated his computer and mobile phone on numerous occasions. Since October 2006, authorities have subjected him to constant detention, interrogation and even physical attacks. He is followed day and night by security police. During the APEC summit in November, police seized him on the street to prevent him from participating in a news conference organized by the alliance.
- Le Chi Quang (Vietnam), 36, a lawyer and democracy activist, was arrested at an internet café in 2002 and sentenced to four years in prison on national security charges. He was released early because of international pressure and health problems, including kidney disease. After his release in June 2004, he was put under three years’ house arrest. He is constantly harassed and interrogated by police at his home or at police stations. He cannot leave his quarter in Hanoi without police authorization. The authorities have put strong pressure on his family to force him to stop all dissident activities. The harassment has become harsher since he joined the editorial staff of the To Quoc bulletin, along with Pham Que Duong, Nguyen Thanh Giang, and Tran Khai Thanh Thuy.
- Nguyen Chinh Ket (Vietnam), 54, is a Catholic from the north who moved to the south in 1954. He left the seminary in 1975, but remained active in the church. Since 2001, he has quietly become one of the leading Vietnamese activists through his essays, freelance reports, and role in organizing meetings among dissidents. He is a leader in the Democracy and Human Rights Alliance, as well as founder of the Free Journalists Association in Vietnam, which groups independent reporters and bloggers. In November 2006, he was summoned several times by police for interrogation.
- Nguyen Khac Toan (Vietnam), 51, is an activist who was released from prison in February 2006. He remains under house arrest, and reports that there is a permanent police post in front of his home. A former soldier in the North Vietnamese army, Toan drew the government’s ire when he wrote a series of articles about demonstrations by farmers in 2001 and 2002 against land confiscation and corruption. He has helped farmers and military veterans draft appeals to the government, which, along with his own writings, have been disseminated on the internet. He was arrested in 2002 at an internet café and sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment on espionage charges. He was released after four years, in February 2006. Since his release, he continued to campaign for democratic reforms, helping to launch an independent labor union and the Freedom and Democracy newsletter. In November 2006, he was summoned for interrogation by police. Undercover police were posted in front of his house to prevent foreigners from meeting him during the APEC meetings.
- Nguyen Van Dai (Vietnam), one of Vietnam’s only practicing human rights lawyers, is a founder of the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam, which was launched in 2006. He has taken on most of the legal defense for embattled Protestant churches, including the case of Mennonite pastor and former political prisoner Nguyen Hong Quang. He has written articles about democracy and press freedom, and was detained in August 2006 as he and other dissidents were planning to launch an independent bulletin. He was interrogated by police from November 9 to 14. Police were stationed in front of his home from November 15-22, during the APEC meetings. He was prohibited from leaving his home, and his cell phone and internet access were disconnected.
- Nguyen Vu Binh (Vietnam), 38, is serving a seven-year prison sentence, most of it in solitary confinement, for articles he wrote criticizing the government. One of the first members of Vietnam’s emerging democracy movement, Binh resigned in 2000 from his prestigious journalism post at the party’s Communist Review and tried to form an independent political party and an anti-corruption association. After submitting written testimony about human rights violations in Vietnam to the US Congress and circulating articles critical of the Vietnamese government on the internet in 2002, Binh was arrested and convicted on charges of espionage after an unfair trial.
- Pham Que Duong (Vietnam), 75, one of the most respected leaders of Vietnam’s democracy movement, comes from within the Vietnamese Communist Party itself. A military historian, editor and writer, he is known for outspoken expression of his views – most notably his resignation from the Vietnamese Communist Party in January 1999 to protest the expulsion of fellow government critic Tran Do. He has written many articles, appeals, and open letters to Vietnam’s leadership calling for democracy and human rights. He is one of the editors of the dissident bulletin To Quoc (Fatherland), which is printed clandestinely in Vietnam and circulated on the internet. He has been detained and placed under house arrest many times.
- Tran Khai Thanh Thuy (Vietnam), novelist and journalist, is the only woman honored this year from Vietnam. She has written numerous novels and political essays and is an editor of the dissident bulletin To Quoc (Fatherland), which is printed clandestinely in Hanoi, Hue, and Ho Chi Minh City, and circulated on the internet. She has been repeatedly denounced and humiliated in public meetings organized by the authorities, including a “People’s Court” in October, where police gathered 300 people in a public stadium to insult her. Mobs have entered her home to call her a traitor and a prostitute, and threatened to beat her. Police have told her they cannot protect her, and that the only way to do so is for her to abandon her activism. She and her husband have been harassed at their workplaces. In September and October 2006, she was continuously interrogated and detained by authorities, and in November she was dismissed from her job. She was locked in her house by authorities during the November 2006 APEC meetings.
- Zakeus Chibaya (Zimbabwe), journalist, was harassed and attacked by the government for writing negative stories for the Masvingo Mirror about the Masvingo province land reform program and naming the government ministers involved. The ministers retaliated by sending youth militia to attack Chibaya and banning him from covering all government functions. They also filed a defamation case against the paper, and demanded the paper fire Chibaya or they would continue the lawsuit. He fled to Johannesburg, South Africa.