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Hellman/Hammett Grants

The Hellman/Hammett grants are given annually by Human Rights Watch to writers around the world who have been victims of political persecution and are in financial need. The forty-four writers who received grants in 1998 hail from nineteen countries where they face obstacles ranging from imprisonment and torture to bans on their work and cut-off of their phone lines. Writers from Vietnam, Turkey, and Nigeria received a major portion of the 1998 grants, reflecting the especially repressive climate for free expression in those three countries. But as harsh as the situation was for writers there, conditions were equally severe in other countries where the signs of repression were less visible. Licensing policies and intimidation silence many voices before they can be heard. The suppression is just as egregious when expression is inhibited before it is put into words as when the abuse of writers is open and obvious.

In addition to the Vietnamese, Nigerian, and Turkish writers, this year’s grant recipients include Miriam Tlali, a South African who vigorously condemned apartheid and paid the price for many years; Gordana Igric who, despite threats to her life, wrote about human rights abuses in the former Yugoslavia; and Ahmad Taufik, an Indonesian journalist who courageously covered taboo subjects like the wealth of the Soeharto family and human rights violations in East Timor.

By publicizing the persecution that the grant recipients endured, the Hellman/Hammett grants focus attention on censorship and suppression of free speech. In some cases the publicity is a protection against further abuse. In other cases, the writers request anonymity because of the dangerous circumstances in which they and their families are living.

The recipients whose names can be safely released are:

Nizametdin Achmetov, Russian poet, spent twenty years in Soviet prisons and “mental hospitals” after being convicted of having nationalistic tendencies. Released in June 1987, he is in poor health and unable to work.

Mohamed Bangura, Sierra Leonean journalist, was abducted after he exposed government-rebel collaboration to prolong the civil war in order to stall popular demands for a democratic election. Taken with his sister and father to an isolated house, they were tortured and sexually abused. His father was murdered; Bangura and his sister escaped. He went to Turkey and then to Canada. In Canada, with help from the Canadian Committee to Protect Journalists, Mr. Bangura established a fund for exiled Sierra Leonean journalists ( see below).

Jesus Barraza, Mexican reporter, took over as editor of La Prensa after the owner was murdered on the orders of a local drug lord angered by the paper’s coverage of the drug trade. The presses did not stop that day nor subsequently, and Mr. Barraza continued to report aggressively on drug trafficking and political corruption in Mexico.

Simin Behbahani, Iranian poet, whose writing has been censored and banned because she spoke out in defense of free expression. She was one of 134 writers who signed the now famous letter protesting the suspicious death of Saidi-Sirjani, after which she and the other signatories received anonymous death threats.

Oral Calislar, Turkish columnist, was convicted under Article 8 of the Anti-Terror Law and sentenced to two years in prison for publishing interviews with Kurdish leaders in book form. Long versions of the interviews had previously run in Cumhuriyet, an Istanbul daily, without incurring any legal action.

Abdulhalim Dede, an ethnic Thracian Turk and Greek citizen, has incurred the wrath of both Greek and Turkish officials for reporting local tensions without partisan bias. In 1997, in one of four trials, he was convicted and sentenced to ten months in prison. The conviction was confirmed, but the sentence was suspended.

Koray Duzgoren, Turkish journalist, has been censored repeatedly, fired, and blacklisted for having written about the Kurdish conflict, corruption, human rights, and the rule of law.

Rahzy Gonzalez was kidnapped and questioned about his activities as a journalist while reporting on political conflict in southern Mexico. On his release, Gonzalez publicly denounced the incident and founded an independent weekly newspaper.

Hoang Tien, Vietnamese writer, joined the struggle for democracy and human rights in 1996 with the publication of several articles condemning the arrest and trial of Ha Si Phu, a widely respected Vietnamese dissident. Hoang Tien was then forbidden to publish.

Gordana Igric, Serbian journalist, known for covering the war and investigating war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, received death threats that periodically forced her into hiding. Despite the risks, she continued to use journalism to expose human rights violations.

Fadil Al-Khayyat, Iraqi poet and journalist, has been harassed and imprisoned for criticizing the dictatorship and refusing to praise Saddam Hussein. When his second book of poems was published in northern Iraq, security forces tried to arrest him, and he fled with his family to Beirut.

Lu Phuong, free lance writer, joined the North Vietnamese National Liberation Front in 1968, and after the war worked at the Ministry of Culture until he was forced to retire for expressing dissident views. His writing was banned in Vietnam, his foreign correspondence screened, and he was closely followed by agents from the Ministry of the Interior.

Nidal Mansour, Jordanian editor and outspoken opponent of the restrictions imposed on the Jordanian press, has been out of work since September 1997 when the government closed twelve papers including the one he edited. In June 1998, he was convicted and sentenced to six months in prison for harming relations with a friendly state in connection with an article about drug trade in Lebanon.

Abosede Sarah Nkoyo Abge-Davies Mbah, Nigerian journalist, wrote about prison conditions and lobbied for the release of political prisoners including her husband George Mbah (a former assistant editor of Tell magazine). While in England to urge theCommonwealth nations to expel Nigeria, Ms. Mbah learned that she faced almost certain arrest if she returned home. She stayed in London and continued to press for the release of political prisoners. George Mbah was released on July 20, 1998, following the death of Gen. Sani Abacha.

Fred M’membe, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Post, a leading independent daily in Lusaka, Zambia, was indicted on more than fifty charges for crimes like insulting the president, criminal libel, inciting mutiny, withholding information, and violating the Drug Act. If convicted, he could be sentenced to more than one hundred years in prison, but he has publicly promised to continue using his pen to reform parliament and other institutions of state.

Nguyen Ngoc Tan, Vietnamese novelist and journalist, was arrested in 1975 and spent fourteen years in prisons and prison hospitals. After his release, he supported Ng Dinh Huy’s Movement to Unite the People and Build Democracy for Vietnam and was arrested again, convicted, and sentenced to eleven years in prison.

Babafemi Ojudu, Nigerian journalist, was arrested in November 1997 as he returned from Nairobi after participating in a seminar organized by the U.S.-based Freedom Forum. He was held without charge at an undisclosed location until July 20, 1998, when he was released with other political prisoners following the death of General Abacha.

Ahmet Zeki Okcuoglu has faced continuing legal battles with the Turkish government over articles and books he published that deal with the Kurdish question. Six books have been confiscated. He spent ten months in prison, from June 1997 to April 1998.

Adebayo Onanuga, Nigerian journalist, was arrested several times in 1995 and 1996 when he spoke up for press freedom and criticized military regimes past and present. In 1997, he went into hiding for fear of re-arrest but, hearing that a “shoot on sight” order was out against him, he fled to the United States.

Abdul Oroh, Nigerian journalist, is a founding member of the Civil Liberties Organization, a leading Nigerian NGO that trains journalists and reports on human rights conditions. He has been arrested five times and spent as long as eleven months in detention without charge or explanation.

Pham Thai Thuy, aka Thai Thuy, Vietnamese poet and journalist, was arrested, tortured, and held in a solitary cell for one year after the Saigon government fell to the North Vietnamese in 1975. Released in 1986, he still had the courage to join Doan Viet Hoat to edit Freedom Forum. Arrested again in 1990, he was held for four years and then released in poor health. He emigrated to the United States in August 1997.

Fereshteh Sari, Iranian novelist and poet, also translates Russian novels into Farsi. Ms. Sari was not politically active, but she raised human rights and free expression issues in her work and has been interrogated by government officials. Until the election of President Khatami in August 1997, one novel was banned and other books could not be reissued.

Faraj Sarkuhi, Iranian editor and commentator on literature and art, was an organizer of a 1994 statement calling for an end to literary censorship in Iran. Authorities retaliated by targeting the signatories, and three were found dead under mysterious circumstances. Sarkuhi disappeared in November 1996. The government said he had gone to Germany, but German officials claimed he had not arrived. A month later, he appeared at the Tehran airport and confirmed the government’s story. In January 1997, he was arrested, convicted in camera of slandering Iran, and sentenced to one year in prison. Released in January 1998, he is living in exile in Germany.

Ali Awwad Hamad Al-Snaid, Jordanian writer, was arrested and held briefly in 1996 for writing a play about the trial of Leith Shubeilat, a prominent critic of the Jordanian government. Arrested again in 1997 for writing an article that was deemed an insult to the dignity of King Hussein, Mr. Snaid was held incommunicado and forced to sign a confession that was used as evidence during his trial. He was sentenced to eighteen months in prison, but the sentence was reduced to six months on appeal.

Reynaldo Soto Hernandez, Cuban poet and journalist, was arrested several times in 1989 and again in 1990. Convicted of “contempt of authority” ( desacato ), he served three years in prison. He was arrested again in 1994 and within a week was charged, tried, and sentenced under the vaguely defined law of “dangerousness” that is often used to justify expeditious imprisonment of dissidents. He served another three-year sentence, was released in September 1997, and emigrated to Miami in June 1998.

Suh Joonshik, Korean editor and columnist, also published three volumes of letters written during seventeen years as a political prisoner. After his release in 1988, Mr. Suh founded Sarangbang, a human rights group, and became its director. In November 1997 police came to his home, took his books and the videotapes from a film festival that he had recently organized, and put him in prison. Following an international protest and the opposition’s victory in the national elections, Suh was released on bail.

Ahmad Taufik, Indonesian journalist, was imprisoned and sentenced to three years in prison for publishing the magazine of the independent journalists’ union without a license and for expressing “hostility, hatred, or contempt for the government.” Taufik continued to write from prison, interviewing political inmates, describing prison conditions, and exposing corruption like the sale of parole and bribery of prison guards. He was released on parole in July 1997.

Thich Tri Sieu, Buddhist monk and scholar, was arrested in 1984 as part of a government crackdown on the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam and charged with engaging in “activity aimed at overthrowing the people’s government.” Held without charge for four years, he was convicted at a closed trial and condemned to death, a sentence later reduced to twenty years at hard labor. In 1995 at a political indoctrination session, he spoke out for democracy and human rights and was put in solitary confinement. He was released in September 1998.

Thich Tue Si, Buddhist monk, philosopher, and poet, was arrested in 1984 during a wave of government repression against the United Buddhist Church of Vietnam. As with Thich Tri Sieu, Thich Tue Si was held without charge for four years in a solitary cell, then charged with “activity aimed at overthrowing the people’s government” and convicted in a closed trial without access to counsel. After an international protest, his death sentence was commuted to twenty years at hard labor. In 1994, he joined other political prisoners to protest a ban on meeting with a U.N. delegation. He also spoke up for better prison conditions and respect for humanrights. He was released in September 1998.

Miriam Tlali, South African writer, wrote stories and articles condemning apartheid throughout the years it was law in South Africa. This made her a target for political persecution: her books were banned; police ransacked her home, seizing and destroying manuscripts; and the government restricted her travel. Her recent work has been about conditions for black women in southern Africa.

Horacio Verbitsky, Argentinian journalist, was convicted of “contempt of authority” ( desacato ) for writing articles that exposed corruption and human rights abuse. After exhausting all domestic remedies, he filed a complaint (with Human Rights Watch representation) before the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of OAS. This resulted in a settlement in which he dropped the complaint and the Argentine government repealed the law of desacato that had been on the books for more than one hundred years. In 1995, Mr. Verbitsky and other Argentine journalists formed Periodistas, an NGO founded to defend freedom of expression in Argentina.

Yang Lian, Chinese poet and essayist, took part in the 1979 Beijing Spring democracy movement and edited an underground literary magazine. In 1983, government authorities attacked an epic he wrote about Tibet and banned his writing for one year. Lecturing in New Zealand at the time of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, he organized demonstrations. Since then all his work has been banned in China, and he fled to England, where he has been living in exile.

Zhang Lin, Chinese poet, served several sentences in “reform through labor” camps for expressing dissident political views. Upon completing a three-year term in May 1997, he fled to the United States and applied for asylum.

Zhou Guoqiang, Chinese poet, lawyer, former factory worker, and a leader of the Beijing Workers Autonomous Federation during the 1989 protests, was charged with “counterrevolutionary propaganda and incitement” but released without being tried. He continued his pro-democracy activities and was sentenced to three years in prison in 1994. Released in March 1998, he emigrated to the United States.

Sierra Leonean journalists received a group award through a special fund created to support thirty-five journalists exiled from Sierra Leone. While the individual situations varied in detail, all the journalists were subjected to political persecution due in large part to opinions they expressed or facts they reported.

The Hellman/Hammett grants were awarded after nominations were reviewed by a five-person selection committee composed of writers and editors. In the course of the year the selection committee approved two additional grants to writers who needed emergency aid to help in situations where their lives were in immediate danger.


Copyright © 1999
Human RIghts Watch