41 Facing Persecution Win Hellman/Hammett Grants
(New York) - Forty-one writers from 19 countries have received 2012 Hellman/Hammett grants for their commitment to free expression and their courage in the face of persecution.
The award-winners have faced persecution for their work, generally by government authorities seeking to prevent them from publishing information and opinions. Those honored include journalists, bloggers, essayists, novelists, poets, and playwrights. They also represent numerous other writers worldwide whose personal and professional lives are disrupted by repressive policies to control speech and publications.
“The Hellman/Hammett grants help writers who have suffered because they published information or expressed ideas that criticize or offend people in power,” said Lawrence Moss, coordinator of the Hellman/Hammett grant program at Human Rights Watch. “Many of the writers honored by these grants share a common purpose with Human Rights Watch: to protect the rights of vulnerable people by shining a light on abuses and building pressure for change.”
Governments have used arbitrary arrest and detention, politically motivated criminal charges, and overly broad libel and sedition laws to try to silence this year’s Hellman/Hammett awardees. They have been harassed, threatened, assaulted, indicted, jailed on trumped-up charges, or tortured for peacefully expressing their views or informing the public. When abusive governments target writers, it intimidates others to practice self-censorship.
Free expression is a central human right, enshrined in article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” On July 21, 2011, the Human Rights Committee, the expert body established under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, reiterated the central importance of freedom of opinion and expression, stating that these freedoms “are indispensable conditions for the full development of the person. They are essential for any society. They constitute the foundation stone for every free and democratic society.”
The Hellman/Hammett grants are given annually to writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution or human rights abuses. A distinguished selection committee awards the cash grants to honor and assist writers whose work and activities have been suppressed by repressive government policies.
The grants are named for the American playwright Lillian Hellman and her longtime companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett. Both were both questioned by US congressional committees about their political beliefs and affiliations during the aggressive anti-communist investigations inspired by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Hellman suffered professionally and had trouble finding work. Hammett spent time in prison.
In 1989, the trustees appointed in Hellman’s will asked Human Rights Watch to devise a program to help writers who were targeted for expressing views that their governments oppose, for criticizing government officials or actions, or for writing about subjects that their governments did not want reported.
Over the past 23 years, more than 750 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.
Of the 41 winners this year, six remain anonymous to prevent further persecution. A list and brief biographies of the award-winners, including just the countries of the anonymous grantees, is below.
A concentration of grantees in certain countries points to especially severe repression of free expression by those governments. Twelve of this year’s grantees come from the People’s Republic of China; four of them are Tibetan and remain anonymous for security reasons. Five grantees are from Vietnam, four from Ethiopia, and three from Iran.
“The compelling stories of the Hellman/Hammett winners illustrate the danger to journalists and writers around the world,” Moss said.
2012 Hellman/Hammett Awardees
A radio journalist and editor who has been harassed and threatened by Burundi government authorities as a result of his work.
Bertrand Teyou (Cameroon)
Bertrand Teyou was jailed in November 2010 for writing a book highly critical of the first lady of Cameroon, after previously writing a book critical of Cameroon’s president. Unable to pay the substantial fine demanded for his release, he spent six months in Douala’s New Bell prison, known for its horrible conditions. A news conference for his previous book l’Antécode Biya: Au coeur d’un pays sans tête was banned in Douala, and Teyou was later charged with attempting to disturb the public order, among other crimes, for “his involvement in the publication of a statement calling for demonstrations and strike to protest the high price of fuel.” Teyou has left Cameroon due to the persecution, and lives in Mexico City, where he continues to suffer serious health problems resulting from his imprisonment.
Eskinder Nega (Ethiopia)
On July 13, after nine months in detention, Eskinder Nega, a veteran Ethiopian journalist and the foremost critic from the media of the ruling Ethiopian government, was sentenced to 18 years in prison for conspiracy to commit terrorist acts, as well as participation in a terrorist organization and treason. His case is under appeal. He has been jailed numerous times. Eskinder and his wife, the fellow journalist and newspaper publisher Serkalem Fasil,were arrested, detained for more than one year, and charged with treason following the contested 2005 elections. They were acquitted of all charges in April 2007. Since his release, Eskinder has faced ongoing harassment, surveillance, and intimidation. The authorities denied him a publishing license. In February 2011 he was once again briefly detained. Despite the ongoing harassment, he refused to leave Ethiopia and continued to write and speak out until he was again imprisoned.
Mesfin Negash (Ethiopia)
Mesfin Negashworks for Addis Neger Onlinewebsite, which he established along with other colleagues after fleeing the country in 2009. Mesfin was convicted in absentia in the same trial as Eskinderunder the anti-terrorism law’s article on support for terrorism, which contains a vague prohibition on “moral support.” Mesfin was one of the editors of the now-defunct popular analytical Addis Neger newspaper, but was forced to close the paper and go into exile in November 2009, with most of the paper’s senior staff, after the authorities threatened him.
Woubshet Taye (Ethiopia)
Woubshet Taye was a journalist and deputy editor of the popular, now defunct, weekly newspaper Awramba Times. He was arrested on vague charges of terrorism in June 2011, reportedly tortured during his pretrial detention, and sentenced on terrorism charges in January 2012 in a trial that failed to meet basic fair trial standards. He is currently serving a 14-year prison sentence. The Awramba Times closed in November, following the exile of its editor, Dawit Kebede.
Reeyot Alemu (Ethiopia)
Reeyot Alemu is serving a five-year prison sentence in Ethiopia following an unfair trial in which she was charged with terrorism. She was a teacher and a columnist for Feteh, one of the few independent weekly newspapers in Ethiopia, at the time of her arrest. Evidence presented against Reeyot consisted primarily of online articles critical of the government and telephone discussions, notably regarding peaceful protest actions that do not amount to acts of terrorism. Alemu’s case is a strong example of Ethiopia’s use of its anti-terrorism law to silence journalists.
Buya Jammeh (The Gambia)
Buya Jammeh was a journalist in the Gambia reporting for the country’s pro-government newspaper Daily Observer. He was fired from the newspaper after he joined the executive body of the Gambia Press Union in 2008. He continued to serve on the press union's board when it published a statement denouncing callous remarks about the still-unpunished 2004 murder of a prominent Gambian journalist, Deyda Hydara. After several other journalists and editors were arrested for printing the statement, Jammeh fled the country. Jammeh lives in exile in Senegal, where he works for Radio Alternative Voice, which streams online independent radio concerning Gambia, and writes for the Africa News Agency
A journalist and editor who was repeatedly threatened by Rwandan state authorities, labeled an enemy of the state, and convicted of defamation.
Abdelgadir Mohammed Abdelgadir (Sudan)
Abdelgadir is a journalist and advocate for media freedom and human rights in Sudan, where government authorities consistently harass and censor the media. Abdelgadir's articles have been censored on numerous occasions. He has been arrested three times for reporting on human rights issues, though never charged with a crime. Abdelgadir’s book on media freedom in Sudan, released this year, is banned from publication inside the country.
Silvanos Mudzvova (Zimbabwe)
Silvanos Mudzvova is a well known playwright, director, and actor in Zimbabwe. His work typically centers on issues of human rights, poverty, and governance, encouraging the poor to work for a change of government. His latest play, Protest Revolutionaries, portrays activists, students, farmers, and street vendors to show that all citizens have the power to have their voice heard.
Zimbabwe government officials have labeled Mudzvova and his plays “subversive,” arrested him numerous times, and confiscated his laptop and unpublished scripts. After death threats he went into exile for four months, but has returned to Zimbabwe and continues to produce work despite the highly repressive environment.
Zaw Thet Htwe (Burma)
Zaw Thet Htwe has been a prominent poet, screenwriter, editor, journalist, and activist in Burma for more than 20 years. His poems have appeared in Burmese magazines and abroad since 1996, and were published in a collection called Mann-chaung La-Yaung (Moonlight on Mann Stream). He has been continually involved in social activism, including 1988 prodemocracy demonstrations, a student political party, and raising funds for victims of HIV/AIDS and Cyclone Nargis and alms for monks taking part in the 2007 Saffron Revolution.
Zaw Thet Htwewas arrested in 2003 and charged with treason for his collaboration on a sports journal that employed many former Burmese political prisoners. Upon his release from prison in 2005, he organized arts and poetry events attended by many leading political activists. Zaw Thet Htwe was arrested again in 2008 and sentenced to 11 years in prison after being found guilty of violating Burma’s Electronic Transactions Act for “disaffection toward state and government” in his use of the internet to publish his work. He was released in January and is deeply involved in current efforts to improve media freedom
Wang Lihong (China)
Wang Lihong became a full-time human rights defender after retiring as a government employee in 2008. She writes poetry, open letters, and online commentary advocating for rights of women, the poor, homeless, and other victims of social injustice in China. In October 2010, Wang was detained for eight days along with other activists for celebrating Liu Xiaobo’s Nobel Peace Prize. She wrote about the experience in a series of poems entitled Eight Days, in which she expresses solidarity with other prisoners being held by Chinese authorities for their peaceful activism. In 2011, Wang was detained and subsequently arrested for organizing a protest in defense of three “netizens” (online activists) on trial in Fujian province. She was tried and found guilty of “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and was sentenced to nine months in prison.
Qi Chonghuai (China)
Qi Chonghuai is a Chinese journalist known for his work in a wide array of publications exposing official corruption and social injustice. He has been called the “Anti-Corruption Reporter” and “Reporter of Conscience.” Qi was arrested and detained in 2007 after his publication of photographs depicting a luxurious government building constructed with taxpayer funds in the economically poor Tengzhou province in 2007 prompted a popular outcry. In 2008, he was convicted of “extortion and blackmail” and sentenced to four years in prison. While in custody, he was severely beaten and tortured, but continued to write articles on the mistreatment of prisoners in China. These articles were confiscated but nevertheless ended up on Chinese websites in 2009. In May 2011, one month before his scheduled release, Qi was “retried” and his sentence changed to 12 years. He is in Zaozhuang Prison with a scheduled release date of June 25, 2019. His wife is ill and unemployed, and she and their two children live in extreme hardship.
Huang Qi (China)
Huang Qi is a longtime human rights activist and writer in China. In 1998, Huang and his wife founded the Tianwang Missing Persons Inquiry Service Center to assist people in locating and reuniting with missing and forcibly disappeared family members in China. In 1999, the organization went online as China’s first domestic human rights website, featuring articles and information from Huang and other activists. Huang was detained in 2000, convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” in 2003, and sentenced to five years in prison and one year of deprivation of political rights. He was beaten and tortured in prison. After being released in 2005, he immediately renewed his online advocacy, restructuring the Tianwang website to feature reporting on other human rights defenders, and government corruption such as the expropriation of farmland. After reporting on the shoddy construction of schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and neglect of the victims, Huang was kidnapped and detained again, convicted in a secret trial, and sentenced to three years in prison. He was released in 2011, and despite continuing harassment, deprivation of rights, and extremely poor health resulting from his time in prison, continues in his commitment to human rights advocacy.
He Depu (China)
He Depu has been a veteran activist and writer in China since the 1979 Democracy Wall Movement, and a prolific writer for online publications including Beijing Youth, China E-Weekly, and Democracy Forum. He also headed the China Democratic Party (CDP) from 1999 to 2002, and wrote a series documenting the history of the CDP as an independent political party declared illegal by the Chinese government. In November 2003, He was convicted of “inciting subversion of state power” and sentenced to eight years in prison and a further two years of deprivation of political rights. He was beaten and tortured while in prison, and in 2008 wrote an open letter to the president of the International Olympic Committee to highlight the brutal treatment of China’s political prisoners in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics. He was released in 2011 but remains deprived of political rights. He is unemployed and in poor health, but continues to write for online publications, calling for protection of human rights and scrutiny of Chinese authorities.
Huuchinhuu Govruud (China)
Huuchinhuu Govruud, an ethnic Mongolian, began her writing career with essays in journals and newspapers on Mongolian language and literature. She became a prolific dissident internet blogger, and an outspoken critic of Chinese government policies in Southern Mongolia, arguing for the preservation of Mongolian language, culture and identity and protection of the Mongolian natural environment.
Huuchinhuu has since 1996 been repeatedly summoned, questioned, and detained many times for her activism, writing, and participation in the Southern Mongolian Democracy Alliance (SDMA). Following the total restriction of her travel, she was placed under house arrest in 2010 for rallying Mongolians through the Internet to cheer for the release of Hada, the founder of SMDA. She has intermittently been held in prison or in a police-guarded hospital, and beaten by police for her refusal to cooperate. She is reportedly in poor health and has limited contact with the outside world while under house arrest, her phone and internet having been cut off.
Memetjan Abdulla (China)
The Uyghur journalist Memetjan Abdulla worked for eight years as a broadcaster and editor at the Uyghur service of the People’s Republic of China National Radio. In his free time, Abdulla also assisted in the management of the independent Uyghur-language website Salkin. In 2009, Abdulla was arrested and charged for translating and posting to Salkin a call made by the Munich-based World Uyghur Congress to protest the deaths of Uyghur factory workers in the eastern Chinese city of Shaoguan. The initially peaceful protests in Urumqi over these deaths from July 5 to 7, 2009, became one of the worst episodes of ethnic violence in China in decades. According to government figures, 197 people, 134 of them Han Chinese, died in the violence, and some 1,600 were injured. Security forces arrested hundreds of suspected protesters over the following days and weeks, and the government promised harsh punishment – including the death penalty for the worst offenders – as early as July 9. Although he did not take part in the protests, Abdulla was sentenced to life in prison for “inciting subversion to state power.”
Gulmire Imin (China)
Gulmire Imin is a Uyghur writer in China who worked for the Uyghur-language website Salkin, and contributed poetry and articles critical of Chinese government policies. After Salkin posted a call for a demonstration in Urumqi following the deaths of Uyghur factory workers, a protest that became violent after it was suppressed by Chinese security forces (see description in the biography of Memetjan Abdulla), she was arrested as a web moderator of the website and sentenced to life in prison for being an “illegal organizer.” Her sentence is notably harsh compared to sentences of others who participated in the unrest and is reflective of the government’s crackdown on dissent by ethnic minorities. She was reportedly tortured while in detention, and she is currently held in the Xinjiang Women’s Prison in Urumqi.
Sun Wenguang (China)
Sun Wenguang is a retired professor of physics at Shandong University. He has published hundreds of articles critical of the Chinese government, on subjects including the SARS epidemic, restrictions on media freedom, official corruption, and the Wenchuan earthquake, and he has spoken out on behalf of other dissidents including Du Daobin and Liu Xiaobo. He has also published four books in Hong Kong: Against the Wind for 33 Years: Dictatorship after 1977 versus Constitutional Democracy; Essays from Within and Without of Prison; Calling for Freedom; A Country in a Century of Trouble: From Mao Zedong to Jiang Zemin; and Essays on Chinese Central Government andCCP from Prison.
During the Cultural Revolution, Sun was detained twice for a total of 30 months for “counterrevolutionary speech.” In 1974, he was arrested again and detained for three-and-a-half years; in 1978 he was sentenced to seven years in a forced labor camp on similar charges of criticizing Mao. Sun was only politically rehabilitated in 1982. In April 2009, while en route to commemorate the death of Zhao Ziyang, the former Chinese prime minister who had been dismissed after supporting Tiananmen Square protesters, he was attacked by unidentified assailants, suffering several broken ribs and numerous injuries to his head and spine. He has run in local political elections in recent years, and has been placed under house arrest during these campaign periods and at other sensitive periods. He continues to write.
Four anonymous Tibetans (China)
Four writers imprisoned for writing about protests in Tibet.
Putu Oka Sukanta (Indonesia)
Putu Oka Sukanta, born in 1939, is a Balinese and Indonesian poet and novelist. He was a journalist in his youth and active in a leftist artists’ association during the Sukarno era. Beginning in 1966 he was detained for a decade based on his writings and associations, and subjected to beatings and starvation. Despite the inhumane prison conditions, he learned acupuncture and herbal medicine from fellow prisoners.
After his release in 1976, he supported himself as an acupuncturist and herbalist, and published many poems, storie, and novels through alternative and international publishers because he was rejected by mainstream publishers. He has also written many books on traditional medicine and acupuncture, continues to write on the events of 1965-66, and, working with young Indonesian filmmakers, has produced six documentary films on those events.
Dominikus Sorabut (Indonesia/Papua)
Dominikus Sorabut is a Papuan activist who also produced a number of film documentaries on issues such as deforestation, illegal mining, and Indonesian government efforts to eradicate Melanesian Papuan cultures. In 2010, he interviewed a Papuan farmer who was tortured by Indonesian soldiers, helping to provide international exposure of torture and suffering of the farmers. Sorabut has written several op-ed articles and a number of book manuscripts on the Papuan people. While attending a peaceful demonstration for Papuan independence in October 2011, Sorabut was arrested when Indonesian police and soldiers fired into the crowd and detained more than 300 protesters. Sorabut was convicted of treason along with four other Papuan figures and sentenced to three years in prison. He is in the Abepura prison in Jayapura, Papua.
Malik Siraj Akbar (Pakistan)
Malik Siraj Akbar is a journalist whose work has appeared in prominent publications, including Dawn and The Daily Times in Pakistan and The Hindu and The Times of India. His online newspaper Baloch Hal was blocked by Pakistani authorities due to its coverage of human rights violations in Balochistan by Pakistan’s military and security forces. Following numerous arrests and apparent executions of Baloch journalists, activists, and intellectuals, and death threats to himself, Malik fled Pakistan for the US and was granted political asylum. He lives in Washington DC, where he maintains the Baloch Hal website and writes as a freelance journalist. In 2011, Malik wrote the book, The Redefined Dimensions of the Baloch Nationalist Movement.
Zubair Torwali (Pakistan)
Zubair Torwali is a journalist from the Swat valley in Pakistan. As a college teacher in Islamabad, he began writing op-ed articles for daily newspapers in Pakistan. He first wrote about the nearly-extinct Torwali language, and later began to criticize militancy in Swat and abuses committed by both the Taliban and Pakistani government forces. He was targeted by the Taliban for his writing, faced numerous death threats from the Taliban and from the Pakistani military, and had to flee Swat for safer locations within Pakistan. Zubair continues to write op-ed articles for Pakistani daily newspapers, despite having restricted movement and a low profile because of the threats he and his family continue to face.
Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge (Sri Lanka)
Sonali Samarasinghe Wickrematunge has been a prolific writer, investigative journalist, and editor for 20 years. Her husband, Lasantha Wickrematunge, was editor-in-chief of The Sunday Leader newspaper in Sri Lanka until he was killed in January 2009. She is finishing a book about the circumstances of his murder and about the human rights violations in the government’s war against the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) forces. Trained as a lawyer, she became an award-winning journalist and editor-in-chief of The Morning Leader newspaper, which closed after she fled the country because of continuing death threats. She lives in exile in the United States and has started the website lankastandard.com to continue to cover issues regarding Sri Lanka.
Huynh Ngoc Tuan (Vietnam)
Huynh Ngoc Tuan has written dozens of influential articles, commentaries, and a novella exposing social injustice and government repression. His writings promote human rights, democracy, and what he believes are the virtues of a multi-party political system. He was arrested in October 1992 for attempting to send abroad a novella and several short stories critical of government policies, for which he was charged with conducting propaganda against the Socialist state. In April 1993 he was sentenced to 10 years in prison, followed by another four years of probation that restricted his movement and activities. He nevertheless resumed his dissident actions, writing a memoir detailing his prison years. In 2007, he joined the pro-democracy grouping Bloc 8406.
In 2011, the police searched Huynh Ngoc Tuan’s house and confiscated a computer, computer accessories, and paper notebooks. He was fined 100,000,000.00 Vietnamese Dong (about US$5,000) for using information technology to conduct propaganda against the state. Police pressure has made it impossible for Huynh Ngoc Tuan to obtain a secure job. Two of Huynh Ngoc Tuan’s children, Huynh Thuc Vy and Huynh Trong Hieu, are prominent young bloggers in their own right. They also suffer from police surveillance, intimidation, interrogation, and other forms of police harassment, such as confiscation of cameras and cell phones.
Huynh Thuc Vy (Vietnam)
Huynh Ngoc Tuan’s daughter Huynh Thuc Vy is a young political blogger whose writing has spread extensively on the internet. Due to her father’s status as a political prisoner, Huynh Thuc Vy suffered discrimination during her childhood. She began publishing articles on the foreign-based website Dan Chim Viet in late 2008. Touching upon various social and political issues, Huynh Thuc Vy’s writing promotes a multi-party political system, freedom and democracy, and urges young people to become socially and politically engaged. While teaching herself law, Huynh Thuc Vy has emerged as a proponent of a society run by rule of law and written in support of legal activists who have been imprisoned for their peaceful activism.
After the Huynh family home was searched and computer equipment and notebooks seized (as described above), Huynh Thuc Vy was fined 85,000,000.00 Vietnamese Dong (about $4,250). Like her father, she has difficulty finding gainful employment because of police pressure.
Nguyen Huu Vinh (Vietnam)
Nguyen Huu Vinh (also known as Jean Baptiste Nguyen Huu Vinh or J.B Nguyen Huu Vinh)is a prominent Catholic blogger advocating freedom of religion and fundamental human rights. He writes about topics of great public concern such as land confiscation, police brutality, abusive government policies, and repression of church and religious freedom. He is also well known for his five-part series of reports narrating in detail the appeals trial of a prominent legal activist, Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu. In addition, Nguyen Huu Vinh writes poetry and short fiction commenting on social and political issues. His 2012 blogs have included the four-part satire “Meeting President Obama,” with himself as protagonist, in which he encounters Obama in a dream and the two of them discuss issues like freedom of speech and media freedom.
Nguyen Huu Vinh has been subjected to intrusive surveillance, intimidation, interrogation, and detention. He has been assaulted twice by unknown thugs: first, in January 2010, for reporting police mistreatment of parishioners during a land dispute between Dong Chiem parish and the local government; then, in July 2012, for blogging reports about anti-China protests at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi. In August 2012, the authorities prohibited Nguyen Huu Vinh from leaving Vietnam to accompany his mother on a medical trip to Singapore.
Pham Minh Hoang (Vietnam)
Pham Minh Hoang (who blogs as Phan Kien Quoc) previously taught applied science at the Ho Chi Minh City Polytechnic University. In his blog, he has written about social and political issues, including workers’ rights, national destruction of Vietnamese cultural heritage sites, and environmental pollution. He has conducted free “soft” skills courses for young people, teaching them how to build self-confidence and how to form scientific views so they can be prepared for future careers. According to state media, in these courses, Pham Minh Hoang allegedly taught young people about civil disobedience.
Pham Minh Hoang was arrested on August 13, 2010, for his alleged affiliation with the officially-proscribed Viet Tan party, a group that once espoused rebellion against the communist government but later changed its approach to peaceful resistance. Human Rights Watch has found no evidence that Pham Minh Hoang has advocated or participated in violent action against the government. Instead, according to state media itself, Pham Minh Hoang’s “crime” is having written “33 articles that distort the policies and guidelines of the Party and the State.” He was convicted on August 10, 2011, by the People’s Court of Ho Chi Minh City for “conducting activities to subvert the administration.” He was sentenced under article 79 of the Vietnamese penal code to three years in prison, to be followed by three years on probation. During his appeal trial on November 29, 2011, the People’s Supreme Court reduced his sentence to 17 months, as a result of which Pham Minh Hoang was released on January 13, 2012. However, he is currently serving his three years of probation, which confines his movement to the residential ward where he lives.
Vu Quoc Tu (Vietnam)
Vu Quoc Tu (who writes as Uyen Vu) is a freelance journalist and a blogger. He worked for state-controlled magazines in the 1990s and started to blog in the mid-2000s. Vu Quoc Tu was a founding member of the Club for Free Journalistsestablished in September 2007 to promote freedom of expression and independent journalism. During the first few months of its existence, club members covered newsworthy stories and events that were either suppressed or ignored by Vietnamese officialdom and the government-controlled media. For example, they covered wild-cat strikes by industrial workers in Binh Duong province, the trials of prominent dissidents such as Le Thi Cong Nhan and Nguyen Van Dai, 2008 street protests against the Beijing Olympics, land disputes between Catholic churches and local administrations, and the 2007 protests by Buddhist monks in Burma. Three other members of Club for Free Journalists have received Hellman /Hammett awards in the past: bloggers Nguyen Van Hai(known as Dieu Cay), Phan Thanh Hai(known as Anh Ba Sai Gon or Anhbasg) and Ta Phong Tan, all of whom are currently serving prison sentences for exercising their right to freedom of expression.
Vu Quoc Tu writes about social, economic, and political issues. He has also reviewed the Vietnamese translation of Orwell’s Animal Farm and the dissident poetry of Tran Vang Sao and Bui Chat. He has voiced support for imprisoned fellow writer Nguyen Van Hai.
Vu Quoc Tu lives with his wife, Le Ngoc Ho Diep, who blogs as Trang Dem. The couple has been subjected to intensive police harassment, including intrusive surveillance, interrogation, and beating. On May 1, 2010, police detained Vu Quoc Tu and Le Ngoc Ho Diep at Tan Son Nhat airport in Ho Chi Minh Cityas they were boarding a plane to Bangkok to go on honeymoon. The police held and interrogated them for several hours and forbade them from traveling abroad, contending this was necessary to protect Vietnam’s national security. Police pressures have also prevented Vu Quoc Tu from securing employment in Vietnam.
EUROPE and CENTRAL ASIA
Urunboy Usmonov (Tajikistan)
Urunboy Usmonov has been a journalist, novelist, and playwright for 30 years. He began his career as a journalism student writing about women’s rights and the everyday lives of Soviet citizens in Central Asia, before landing one of his first jobs at Tajikstan’s leading daily Leninabadskaya Pravda.
As a BBC reporter in the Sughd region of northern Tajikistan since 2000, Usmonov has fearlessly covered issues very seldom openly discussed in a post-Soviet country known for growing authoritarianism and the use of defamation cases by state officials to keep reporters silent. His articles have shed light on many human rights issues such as police abuse and torture and HIV/AIDS, and he has courageously explored many aspects of Tajikistan’s destructive civil war, which lasted from 1992 until 1997. Usmonov has also written on underground Islamic movements in Tajikistan, which the government has banned and classified broadly as extremist.
It was in connection with this theme that Tajikistan’s KGB arrested Usmonov in June 2011, reflecting the government’s ongoing crackdown on what it views as religious extremism. Usmonov was kidnapped in broad daylight off the street, placed in a KGB car, and driven to a detention center, where he was tortured for several days and accused of having ties to a banned Islamic movement. Usmonov’s torture only ceased after the successful efforts of his lawyer Faizinisso Vohidova and his employer, the BBC, to raise awareness about his condition.
Despite an international outcry over his detention, Usmonov was convicted and sentenced to three years in prison in 2011, but was then immediately granted an amnesty. The conviction, however, still stands and Usmonov is appealing the ruling. Usmonov has vowed to continue his journalism despite the torture he suffered and to continue his work to strengthen freedom of speech and of the media in his country.
Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev (Turkmenistan)
Dovletmyrat Yazkuliyev works as a freelance contributor for Azatlik Radiosy, the Turkmen service for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL). He is known for his reporting on sensitive issues in Turkmenistan. He reported on a series of explosions from an ammunition depot in the Turkmen city of Abadan in July 2011, exposing the lack of assistance to the victims and slow pace of reconstruction, and defying a news black-out imposed by Turkmen authorities after the blast. Following his reports, Yazkuliyev was threatened with criminal charges of disseminating defamatory information and causing unrest. He was then arrested and sentenced to five years in prison on fabricated charges unrelated to his reporting. Yazkuliyev received a presidential pardon in October 2011.
MIDDLE EAST and NORTH AFRICA
Dr. Abdul Jalil Al-Singace (Bahrain)
Dr. Abdul al-Singace is a prolific writer, blogger, and head of the human rights office of the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, an opposition party in Bahrain. He was an engineering professor at the University of Bahrain until dismissed after his prosecution in 2010. He was arrested in August of that year at Bahrain International Airport on charges of inciting violence and terrorism, on his return from a conference in the UK House of Lords, where he criticized human rights violations in Bahrain. He was held incommunicado in solitary confinement for six months and reportedly mistreated. A month after his release in February 2011, he was arrested again in connection with his speeches and writings during pro-democracy protests, and sentenced to life in prison.
Isa Saharkhiz (Iran)
Isa Saharkhiz is a veteran journalist in Iran who has consistently voiced his criticism of the government crackdown against reformists, particularly in stifling media freedom in Iran. He helped establish the Golden Pen award for journalists, and is a founding member of the Society for the Defense of Freedom of the Press (SDFP), an organization that opposes censorship and the suppression of journalists in Iran. On the day after Iran’s disputed presidential election in June 2009, security forces raided Saharkhiz’s home, threatened his daughter, and seized computers and personal notes. He was subsequently summoned to court but refused to appear. He was arrested on June 20, 2009, and has remained in prison since, with gravely deteriorating health.
Keyvan Samimi (Iran)
Keyvan Samimi is an Iranian journalist and human rights activist. He was the editor-in-chief of the banned newspaper Nameh and has blogged on the banned site Kharabaat. He was also a member of the Society in Defense of Press Freedom, the Committee to Pursue Arbitrary Arrests, and the Committee to Defend the Right To Education. Security forces arrested him in June 2009 after they broke into his house in the middle of the night and confiscated his personal belongings. Judiciary officials accused Samimi of propaganda against the state, conspiring against national security, participating in post-election protests, and issuing statements questioning the validity of the election results. Subsequently, Iran’s Judiciary sentenced Samimi to six years in prison on these national security charges and a lifetime ban from any journalistic, social, and political activity, though the ban was later reduced to 15 years. Samimi had been serving his sentence in Ward 350 of Evin prison until September 2012, when prison authorities transferred him to a solitary cell in Rajaei Shahr prison outside of Tehran. Although he suffers from various ailments, including a liver tumor and arthritis, officials have repeatedly denied him medical leave.
Hila Sedighi (Iran)
Hila Sedighi is a well known young poet and artist in Iran, active in literary and cultural activities since childhood. She founded a club to help preserve Iran’s national historical and cultural heritage, and became an active campaigner in local and national elections in 2005. She wrote and recited poetry in response to the severe repression that followed the disputed 2009 presidential election. She was arrested and interrogated by the Iranian authorities, apparently only because of her poetry, and given a “postponed” sentence of four months in prison.
Mohamad Al Ahmad Al-Ali (Syria)
Mohamad al-Ali is a Syrian journalist who has written for domestic and international online publications. He initially covered business and economic issues, but has focused on political issues since 2008. As a freelance journalist in 2011, he reported extensively on the Syrian protest movement that began in March 2011 for various online outlets. Al-Ali and other journalists covering the protests began to receive threats from Syrian authorities and following the arrest of some journalists al-Ali fled to Lebanon, where he relayed information he received to news websites. On May 20, 2011, Lebanese security forces detained him for a few hours and interrogated him about his activities in Lebanon. Al-Ali reported being beaten. Upon his release, he fled to Istanbul, Turkey.
Ahmed Mansoor (United Arab Emirates)
A writer, poet, blogger, and human rights activist, Ahmed Mansoor has been a voice for political reform and respect for human rights in the United Arab Emirates for many years.
His blog, Muwatan Emiriati Maghloub `Ala Amrih(Helpless Emirati Citizen), has been a credible source for many human rights organizations, covering critical issues such as the UAE’s draft media law, freedom of expression and arbitrary detention, as well as topics especially controversial within the UAE context such as the rights of stateless citizens (Bidoons), state corruption, and political reform. He cofounded the Emirati online political forum UAE Hewar, blocked by Emirati authorities since February 2010. Mansoor also published a book of Arabic poetry in 2007, and has published numerous intellectual articles, short stories, and poems in Arabic-language periodicals.
Mansoor has initiated several citizen petitions to high UAE officials. His last petition, published on March 9, 2011, called for constitutional changes in the Emirates and free elections for all citizens, precipitating a campaign of online harassment and intimidation, and eventually Mansoor’s arrest on April 8, 2011. Accused of offenses including “instigation, breaking laws and perpetrating acts that pose threat to state security,” “undermining the public order,” “opposing the government system,” “insulting the President, the Vice President and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi,” “inciting others to break the law,” “calling for an election boycott,” and “calling for demonstrations,” he was held for eight months in detention without bail.
The UAE’s Federal Supreme Court sentenced Mansoor to three years in prison on November 27, 2011 and although the UAE president commuted his sentence on November 28, his conviction still stands. In September 2012, he was assaulted twice on the street by people with apparent knowledge of his movements. The government continues to withhold his passport, which kept him from appearing at a side event at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, although he spoke by video conference.