November 9, 2009
The Hellman/Hammett grants aim to help writers who dare to express ideas that criticize official public policy or people in power.
Marcia Allina, Hellman/Hammett program coordinator at Human Rights Watch

(New York) - Four Iranians are among 37 writers from 18 countries who are receiving the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award, Human Rights Watch said today.

The award recognizes their commitment to free expression and the courage with which they have faced political persecution.

Iranian authorities have suppressed the work of these writers and journalists, and have targeted them with arbitrary arrests and false charges. Mohammad Sadiq Kaboudvand, one of this year's recipients, has been in prison since his arrest in 2007. The three others who received awards are Asieh Amini, Yusuf Azizi Banitorof, and Arash Sigarchi.

Human Rights Watch administers the Hellman/Hammett grants and chooses grantees annually from writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution. The grant program began in 1989 when the American playwright Lillian Hellman willed that her estate be used to assist writers in financial need as a result of expressing dissenting views.

"The Hellman/Hammett grants aim to help writers who dare to express ideas that criticize official public policy or people in power" said Marcia Allina, Hellman/Hammett program coordinator at Human Rights Watch.

Ms. Hellman was prompted by the persecution that she and her longtime companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett, experienced during anti-communist hysteria in the US during the 1950s when they both were questioned by US congressional committees about their political beliefs and affiliations. Hellman suffered professionally and had trouble finding work. Hammett spent time in prison.

Over the past 20 years, more than 600 writers from 91 countries have received Hellman/Hammett grants.

Short biographies of the Iranian recipients follow.

Asieh Amini, poet, journalist, and women's rights activist, is one of Iran's most effective campaigners against the death penalty, particularly stoning and juvenile executions. Amini is a leading voice for educating the public about human rights issues. She is credited with saving the lives of several juveniles and women on death row by publicizing their cases, campaigning with the authorities, and persuading families of victims to forgo their right to retribution. In March 2007, Amini was arrested while participating in a peaceful protest. She was charged with illegal collusion intended to disrupt national security and public order and detained in Evin Prison for five days. After several interrogations, the court acquitted her for lack of evidence.

Yusuf Azizi Banitorof, novelist, translator, journalist, and human rights activist, is the author of 24 books. He writes in Farsi and in Arabic. In April 2005, he was arrested because of interviews he gave criticizing the suppression of protests by the Arab population of the Ahwaz region in southwestern Iran. He was sent to Evin Prison, held in solitary confinement for 65 days, and subjected to psychological torture in an attempt to force him to make false confessions. In June 2005, he posted $20,000 bail and was released. He was arrested again in June 2006 after he gave a speech about the rise in executions of Ahwazi Arabs. Authorities charged him with inciting protests and fined him $100,000. In 2008, he underwent a seven-month trial and was sentenced to five years in Evin prison. In October 2008 after the sentence was confirmed, Banitorof left Iran for Turkey.

Mohammad Sadiq Kaboudvand, author of three books on civil society movements that the government has refused permission to publish, is the founder and editor of Payam Mardom, a regional weekly that published in both Persian and Kurdish. In 2004, Kaboudvand founded the Human Rights Organization of Kurdistan (HROK). During its first two years, HROK produced more than 700 reports on human rights violations in Iranian Kurdistan and promoted a campaign of peaceful advocacy to bring attention to human rights violations. This alarmed local intelligence agents, and in June 2007, they filed a complaint against him. He was arrested and charged with "disturbing public opinion." The authorities also shut down Payam Mardom. After one week in detention, he was released on bail, then a week later rearrested and taken to Evin Prison. This time he was charged with "acting against national security." He was sentenced to a 10-year prison term and is currently held in Evin Prison.

Arash Sigarchi, journalist and blogger, started his career in journalism as a teenager writing on sports for local publications. While at a university in Tehran, he reported for reformist newspapers. In 2000, he moved back to his home town in northern Iran and edited Gilan-e-Emrouz, a local paper. About this time he also set up a blog, "Panjare Eltehab," which featured news, commentary, and poetry. Sigarchi became a prominent member of Iran's online dissident community, reporting human rights violations on his blog. He was arrested in 2005 as part of a sweeping crackdown on the opposition. Convicted on trumped up charges of espionage and undermining national security, he was sentenced to three years in prison. After more than a year in prison, he was diagnosed with mouth cancer and granted medical leave. In 2008, he fled to the United States.