Hellman/Hammett Grants Honor 42 Writers for Courage Facing Political Persecution
August 4, 2010
The Hellman/Hammett grants aim to help writers who dare to express ideas that criticize official public policy or people in power. Many of the writers share a common purpose with Human Rights Watch: to protect the human rights of vulnerable people by shining a light on abuses and building public pressure to promote lasting, positive change.
Marcia Allina, Hellman/Hammett grant coordinator

(New York) - Human Rights Watch announced Hellman/Hammett grants today for 42 writers from 20 countries in recognition of their commitment to free expression and courage in the face of political persecution.

All are writers whose work and activism have been suppressed by their governments. Beyond their own experiences, they represent numerous other writers and journalists whose personal and professional lives have been disrupted as a result of repressive government policies that aim to control speech and publications.

The Hellman/Hammett grants are administered by Human Rights Watch and given annually to writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution. The grant program began in 1989, when the American playwright Lillian Hellman stipulated in her will that her estate should be used to assist writers in financial need as a result of expressing their 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 grant coordinator. "Many of the writers share a common purpose with Human Rights Watch: to protect the human rights of vulnerable people by shining a light on abuses and building public pressure to promote lasting, positive change."

Governments have used military and presidential decrees, criminal charges, and libel and sedition laws to try to silence this year's 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 to create the assistance program for writers by the persecution that she and her longtime companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett, experienced during the 1950s anti-communist witch hunts in the US, when both were questioned by congressional committees about their political beliefs and affiliations. Hellman suffered professionally and had trouble finding work. Hammett spent time in prison.

In 1989, the executors of Hellman's estate asked Human Rights Watch to devise a program to help writers who were targeted for expressing views that their government opposed, for criticizing government officials or actions, or for writing about things that their government did not want to come to light.

Over the past 21 years, more than 700 writers from 92 countries have received Hellman/Hammett grants of up to US$10,000 each, totaling more than $3 million. The program also gives 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 those whose names can safely be made public follow.

Harn Lay (Burma) is a political cartoonist/satirist for The Irrawaddy, a leading opposition paper based in Thailand. Over the past decade, it has published more than 1,500 of Harn Lay's cartoons. His drawings and captions use humor to protest the brutality of Burma's military regime. Harn Lay fled Burma during the violent crackdown that followed the 1988 student-led demonstrations in which he participated to protest the harsh military rule. He lives in Thailand near the Burmese border.

Musa Mutaev (Chechnya) lives in exile in Norway. His short stories have been widely published in Chechen and Russian, and some have been translated into Norwegian. Mutaev and his family fled Chechnya for a displaced persons' camp in neighboring Ingushetia in 2001 after the Chechen government said his writings constituted a criminal offense. In January 2002, on a brief trip back to Chechnya, he was detained and beaten by federal troops. In September 2003, he was detained by Ingush police and released only after paying ransom. In January 2004, he was again detained by police and questioned about his writing and about his son who had recently moved to Norway. He was released after an acquaintance paid ransom. In March 2004, he was granted asylum in Norway.

Hu Sigen (China), poet, was a lecturer at the Beijing Language Institute when he participated in the Tiananmen Square protests. Three years later, in May 1992, he was arrested as he and friends were planning to distribute flyers to protest the 1989 crackdown and to memorialize the people who had died there. Hu was convicted of counter-revolutionary activity and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Released after 16 years, he is deprived of political rights for the remainder of his term.

Lü Gengsong (China) has written widely in overseas publications and on the internet criticizing the government and calling for reform. His book, Corruption in the Communist Party of China, was published in 2000 in Hong Kong. In August 2007, he was called to a Hangshou police station for a talk and never returned home. The security police followed up by searching his home and confiscating his computer. In January 2008, he was indicted on a charge of "subverting state power" and sentenced to four years in prison with an additional year of deprivation of political rights.

Teng Biao (China) is a human rights lawyer who writes political and social commentaries, fiction, and poetry. He was a guest scholar at Yale University in 2007. When he returned to Beijing, his passport was confiscated, and he was denied permission to leave China. A few months later, he was kidnapped and detained for a short time. Then his law license was revoked. In January 2009, he was suspended from teaching at the Law College of Beijing University.

Yang Tianshui (China), poet, novelist, and essayist, writes on a wide array of subjects and is particularly well-known for essays calling for democratic reform and accountability for human rights abuses. His work has been barred from publication in China but is seen on internet websites.  He spent 10 years in prison, from 1990 to 2000, for voicing opposition to the Tiananmen Square crackdown. In 2005, he was detained without a warrant and convicted of "subverting state power" for posting articles critical of the government on the Internet and for organizing political activities for the outlawed China Democracy Party. He is serving a 12-year prison term and is not scheduled for release until 2017.

Zhang Lin (China) writes poems, plays, and short fiction, most of which has been lost and never published. A few pieces, along with many political essays, were published on Chinese websites. Over the past 25 years, Zhang has repeatedly been arrested and imprisoned for varying periods. Before 1989, he had been arrested a few times for advocating freedom and democracy. In June 1989, he was arrested again and sentenced to two years in prison for playing a leading role in the Tiananmen Square protests. In June 1994, he was detained and sentenced to three years of re-education through hard labor for lacking legal papers to organize the Protection Alliance of Workers' Rights. After his release, he fled to the US and was granted political asylum. He returned to China in 1988, was promptly arrested and was sentenced to another three years of re-education through hard labor. After his release, he was frequently harassed by police. Then in January 2005, he was sentenced to five years in prison with an additional four years' deprivation of political rights for publishing articles on overseas websites.

Zhu Zhengming (China), prompted by the 1989 student movement, researched and wrote Democracy in Politics, which was banned from publication in 1998. The next year, Zhu was arrested and sentenced to 10 years in prison for "subverting state power" for his role in founding the China Democratic Party (CDP). In prison, he was tortured and forced to do hard labor, which damaged his health. The state of his health led to his release in 2006, but he has been under residential surveillance by police ever since.

Carina del Carmen Solano Padilla (Colombia), a freelance journalist, has been covering social and political issues since 2004 in northern Colombia, an area that is greatly affected by paramilitary group activity and local corruption. In 2006, after Solano reported on the paramilitary demobilization during which illegal armed groups sought amnesty, she began receiving phone calls warning her to stop or she would be killed. The police provided two body guards, but the threatening calls continued. The threats escalated in 2008 when she reported on a mayoral candidate who had been demobilized. Solano has moved to Bogota.

Asma'a Al Ghoul (Gaza/Palestine) has worked as a journalist covering politics, art, and culture. She also writes stories, many about children and the Israeli-Palestinian war. She has received a number of awards, the first at age 18, when she won the Palestinian Youth Literature award. Her work has been translated into English, Danish, and Korean. Al Ghoul is a harsh critic of Hamas and refuses to cover her hair. She has been unable to live at the family house in Rafah because her uncle is a top member of Hamas and has threatened to kill her.

Yusak Pakage (Indonesia) is a student activist who has been writing about theology and law in the underground media as part of the campaign to end Indonesian rule over West Papua. He was arrested in December 2004 while helping to organize a nonviolent ceremony where the Morning Star flag, a rallying point for those seeking self-determination, was raised to commemorate a 1962 declaration for Papuan independence. In May 2005, the district court convicted him of "rebellion" against the state and sentenced him to 10 years in prison. In 2009, he sought a presidential pardon. It was granted in April 2010, and he was released in July.

Parvin Ardalan (Iran), a writer and editor, co-founded the Women's Cultural Center, a forum for debating, researching, and documenting women's issues in Iran, and edited the center's online magazine Zanestran. Ardalan is also a co-founder of the One Million Signatures Campaign, a grass roots movement aimed at repealing discriminatory laws against women. She was repeatedly arrested, interrogated, charged, and harassed for her human rights activities. In 2006, the center and the magazine were banned. In 2007, she won the Olof Palme Prize for her work on behalf of women's rights in Iran. After the disputed presidential election in June 2009, the government mounted a major crackdown on journalists and reformist figures. In September 2009, Ardalan went to give a speech in Sweden and stayed. She is now living in Malmö.

Babak Dad (Iran), one of Iran’s foremost bloggers, was also an independent analyst of Iranian politics for VOA’s Persian service and radio Farda. He has worked as a reporter for a number of Iranian publications and has written several books on politically sensitive subjects. During the two years leading up to the 2009 presidential elections in Iran, Dad became increasingly critical of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and in response received numerous threats by telephone and email. Then on June 13, 2009, as he was preparing for a VOA program about the elections, agents came to arrest him. Fortunately, he had left his house shortly before they arrived. Three days later, during a wave of arrests of journalists, security agents stormed and searched his apartment. Dad went into hiding, but kept reporting on the elections. The email threats continued. In September 2009, he made his way with his family to Sulaimaniyah in northern Iraq, and then in December with the assistance of the Committee to Protect Journalists to Paris. He continues to blog and write from Paris and also provides analysis for Radio France International and Voice of America.

Azin Izadifar (Iran) began writing and became a political activist quite young. At age 13, while participating in a demonstration against the mandatory hejab (the head covering worn by women) she was beaten by police. She continued to protest and at one point went into hiding. At age 16, she was arrested and sentenced to three years in Iran's Evin prison. Her family burned her first poems and diaries. She became a dentist who worked with children with disabilities, but was barred from practicing dentistry because of her political activities. She then worked as a translator, though few of the books she translated were allowed to be published. Her last job in Iran was teaching a personal development course to young students. After government forces attacked her home, she fled to Vienna in 2006 and worked with Amnesty International. In 2007 she was granted asylum in the US and is living in California. Over the years she has written four books, 19 articles, and hundreds of poems, all unpublished. Her passion for writing has endured. She is now writing a memoir about her teenage years as political prisoner and a series of articles on the mythology and socio-psychology of Iran.

Almas Kusherbaev (Kazakhstan), a young journalist and writer, has published articles about democracy, market economy, anti-corruption, and politics. His writing often reflects criticism of the current Kazakh government and its long-time president. In 2008,  Kusherbaev wrote about Romin Madinov, a businessman and politician, criticizing him for profiting financially from his legislative activities. Madinov sued Kusherbaev and the newspaper that had published the article, claiming the article damaged his reputation. Kusherbaev and the newspaper were pushed into bankruptcy by the damage assessments levied by the court.

Jit Man Basnet (Nepal), a lawyer and journalist, has been working in the human rights movement in Nepal for more than 10 years. In September 2002, he was kidnapped, tortured, and held for eight months by Maoist rebels in response to writings condemning their use of violence. In February 2004, a Nepalese army team arrested and detained him over an editorial about the king's assets and a news analysis about mass killings carried out by the Royal Nepalese Army. He was released in October 2004, and with the help of Swiss diplomats, spent 18 months in India, where he helped start the Nepali Weekly to support the democratic movement in Nepal. It closed after he returned to Nepal. Back in Nepal, Basnet started a campaign against impunity and filed a number of court cases about human rights violations. Again he felt his safety threatened, and in October 2007, with the help of the Danish embassy, he left and spent eight months in Delhi. During his second exile, Basnet supported the democracy movement in Nepal and published two newspapers that covered events in Nepal while the country's press was under lockdown. He wrote a book about the life of detainees in army custody. After he returned to Nepal in June 2008, Basnet became general secretary of the Lawyer's Forum for Human Rights, a network of human rights lawyers in Nepal.

Natalia Morari (Russia) is an investigative journalist who writes about corruption and money laundering for the Moscow-based newspaper The New Times. In December 2007, when she was returning from an assignment in Israel, she was barred from entering Russia, held overnight at the airport, and deported to Moldova, her home country. Two weeks later, she was told that she was considered a threat to national security and would no longer be allowed to enter Russia. In February 2008, Morari married Ilya Barabanov, a Russian citizen who is also an investigative journalist at The New Times. When they attempted to visit Russia together as husband and wife, Morari was still refused entry.

Alikhan Kureishevich Timurziev (Russia) covered events in Ingushetia, North Ossetia, and Chechnya as a reporter and then deputy editor of the newspaper Ingushetiya, often writing about corruption and human rights abuses. He also worked with the award-winning Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was later assassinated, arranging meetings and accompanying her on reporting trips. This prompted local police to start monitoring him. Local authorities tried to bribe him into publishing an article smearing international nongovernmental organizations working in the Caucuses. After he refused, unidentified men abducted him, beat him, and left him in a field. He reported the attack to the local prosecutor's office, but the case was not pursued. Harassment continued; then Timurziev came down with a mysterious disease, leaving him comatose for weeks and causing him to lose most of his teeth and hair. In 2007, he went into hiding and then fled to Poland. For the past 2½ years, he has been living in a refugee camp in Poland waiting for action on an asylum application.

Jean Bosco Gasasira (Rwanda), editor-in-chief of Umuvugizi, the bi-monthly independent Kinyarwandan newspaper, and contributor to international media outlets, was repeatedly harassed by Rwandan authorities and government supporters. In February 2007, unidentified men beat him with iron bars following a series of articles critical of Rwanda's finance minister and the chief of military intelligence. Gasasira also received threats in August 2006 after publishing an article alleging that President Paul Kagame's administration was rife with nepotism. In August 2009, he wrote again about nepotism in President Kagame's government and was charged with criminal defamation. Tipped off by an informer that Rwandan security forces were planning to assassinate him prior to the 2010 elections, he fled to Uganda, where he plans to start an online newspaper.

Manyang Mayom (Sudan) is a correspondent for the Sudan Tribune, the Khartoum Monitor, and the Gurtong peace media project based in Rumbek, Southern Sudan. He has been beaten and arrested while investigating sensitive stories. In 2008, security forces beat him badly while he was reporting a story about a civilian disarmament campaign in Lakes state. He has also faced harassment and intimidation for reporting on abuses by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the police, the government's crackdown on women and girls for wearing trousers, and the detention of youth in militia prisons.

Awaif Ahmed Issag Osman (Sudan) is a young Darfuri feminist and activist who started her own community publication, Al Raheel ("tree" news), which is posted on a tree trunk in the center of El Fasher, North Darfur. The publication contains articles about the conflict, violence against women, and the culture and history of Darfur. Osman has been arrested by the Sudanese national security authorities for her activism.

Alhaj Warrag Sidahmed (Sudan) is a well-known journalist who has written extensively on a range of political topics in Sudan, including democracy, Islam, the conflict in Darfur, the International Criminal Court (ICC), and the lack of freedom of expression. Since 1999, Sudanese authorities have harassed and arrested him on multiple occasions for his activism. Many of his articles have been censored, and he has faced criminal charges for his writings. He is currently working from exile.

Mustafa Ismail (Syria), a Kurdish poet, also writes articles and literary criticism, often about human rights violations, unfair trials, and freedom of the press. He is a lawyer by training but has not been allowed to practice law. For the past 10 years, Mustafa has been subjected repeatedly to questioning, harassment, and prison. After his most recent arrest, in December 2009, he was held incommunicado for months. Recently, his wife has been able to visit. He is facing a five-year prison sentence.

George Bwanika Seremba (Uganda) is a playwright whose plays have been performed in his native Uganda, Canada, Ireland, and the United States. Come Good Rain won a Dora Mavor Moore award as an outstanding new play in 1994. It is an indictment of the Uganda of Milton Obote and Idi Amin, and also an account of Seremba's abduction, interrogation, and torture by Uganda's military intelligence, and of its botched attempt to execute him. Seremba escaped to Kenya in 1980 and then to Canada. The setting for his next play, Napoleon of the Nile, was a refugee camp. Seremba has lived in exile for nearly 30 years. He is now based in Ireland, but his residency status is subject to annual application and uncertain renewal. Since receiving the Hellman/Hammett grant, Seremba was awarded a fellowship at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, US.

Kalundi Robert Serumaga (Uganda), a playwright, journalist, and radio talk show host, was arrested by security agents on September 11, 2009 after taking part in a live discussion on WBS television. He was taken to a "safe house" operated by the Joint Anti-Terrorism Task Force and severely beaten. He was then transferred to the Central Police Station and released on bail. Four days later, he was charged with six counts of sedition, a capital offense in Uganda. The charges are said to stem from his effective linking the government to financial corruption in Uganda's burgeoning oil industry and ethnic strife. He is banned from working in Uganda media and his passport has been revoked.

Bui Thanh Hieu (Vietnam), who blogs under the name "Nguoi Buon Gio" (Wind Trader), is one of Vietnam's best known bloggers. His blog critiques the government's China policy, its approval of controversial bauxite mines, and its mishandling of Catholic prayer vigils. Hieu was arrested in August 2009 and held for more than a week on charges of "abusing democratic freedom." His house was searched and his laptop confiscated. In March 2010, Hieu was summoned and questioned by police for several days. He remains under surveillance and could be arrested and jailed at any time.

Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh (Vietnam) who blogs under the name of "Me Nam" (Mother Mushroom) was detained and questioned after being photographed wearing a T-shirt with the words "No Bauxite, No China: Spratly and Paracel Islands belong to Vietnam."  In September 2009, she was taken from her home in the middle of the night by police and questioned about blog postings that criticized government policies on China and its disputed claims to the Spratly Islands. She was released after 10 days, but remains under surveillance by police, who continue to pressure her to shut down her blog. Her application for a passport was rejected.

Pham Van Troi (Vietnam) has used various pen names to write about human rights, democracy, land rights, religious freedom and territorial disputes between China and Vietnam. He was an active member of the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam, one of the few rights organizations permitted to operate in Vietnam,   He wrote for the dissident bulletin To Quoc (Fatherland). Since 2006, he has been repeatedly harassed and summoned by police. He was arrested in September 2008 and charged with disseminating anti-government propaganda. In May 2009, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that Pham Van Troi had been wrongfully detained. Despite its conclusion, he was sentenced in October 2009 to four years in prison, followed by four years of house arrest.

Tran Duc Thach (Vietnam) has written a novel, hundreds of poems, and articles and reports that condemn corruption, injustice, and human rights abuses. A veteran of the People's Liberation Army, he is a member of the Nghe An Writers Club. His 1988 novel, Doi Ban Tu (Two Companions in Prison) described the arbitrary nature of Vietnam's legal system and the inhuman conditions in Vietnamese prisons. Poems published under the title Dieu Chua Thay (Things Still Untold) speak about life without freedom and justice. Tran Duc Thach has been repeatedly harassed since 1975. In 1978, the pressure became so harsh that he set himself on fire and was badly burned. Since then, he has been arrested 10 times and brought to court four times, each time released for lack of evidence. In 2009, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that he had been wrongfully and arbitrarily detained after his last arrest in September 2008. Despite this he was sentenced to a three-year prison term, which will be followed by three years of house arrest. 

Tran Khai Thanh Thuy (Vietnam), a prominent novelist and journalist, writes about farmers' land rights, human rights, corruption, and political pluralism. She is often critical of the government and the Vietnamese Communist Party. In October 2006, she was denounced in a show trial before hundreds of people. The next month she was fired from her job as a journalist and placed under house arrest. In April 2007, she was arrested at her home and held incommunicado in B14 prison in Hanoi for nine months. In 2008 and 2009, she endured repeated harassment from police and orchestrated neighborhood gangs, including at least 14 attacks by thugs throwing excrement and dead rodents at her house. Then in October 2009, she was arrested after trying to attend the trials of fellow dissidents and is serving a 42-month prison term. She has diabetes and tuberculosis but has been refused medical care while in prison.

Vu Van Hung (Vietnam) is a teacher and contributor to the dissident bulletin To Quoc (Fatherland), who was dismissed from his job because of his involvement with democracy activists and dissident writers. He was detained for nine days in 2007, then placed under house arrest. He wrote Nine Days in Jail to tell the story of his interrogation. In April 2008, he was arrested and severely beaten for joining a peaceful demonstration against China when the Beijing Olympic torch passed through Ho Chi Minh City. He was arrested again in September 2008 for hanging a banner on a bridge calling for multi-party democracy and is currently serving a three-year prison term, which is to be followed by three years of house arrest. His 2009 trial took place just months after the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that he was a victim of wrongful and arbitrary detention. He is thought to be imprisoned at Hoa Lo 2 Prison in Hanoi, where he is suffering from health problems as a result of severe beatings during interrogation and a one-month hunger strike.