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Hellman/Hammett Grants

The Hellman/Hammett grants are given annually by Human Rights Watch to recognize the courage of writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution and are in financial need. Twenty-eight writers from twenty-two countries received grants in 2000.Among them are Taoufik Ben Brik of Tunisia, Mamadali Makhmudov of Uzbekistan, and Nadire Mater of Turkey, who were jailed for writings that offended their governments. Of those who were forced into exile, some like Jonah Anguka (Kenya), Kadhim-Joni Mahdi (Iraq), and Alejandra Matus (Chile) received asylum in the United States. Others were victims of bloody conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In many countries, governments use military and presidential decrees, criminal libel, and colonial-era sedition laws to silence critics. Writers and journalists are often threatened, harassed, assaulted, or thrown into jail merely for providing information from nongovernmental sources. As a result, in addition to those who are directly targeted, many others are forced to practice self-censorship.

The Hellman/Hammett grant program began in 1989 when the estates of American authors Lillian Hellman and Dashiell Hammett asked Human Rights Watch to design a program for writers in financial need as a result of expressing their views. By publicizing the persecution that the grant recipients endure, Human Rights Watch focuses 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.

Following are short biographies of those recipients in 2000 whose names can be safely released.

Jonah Anguka (Kenya), writer and former government administrator, was tortured and held in solitary confinement for three years on fabricated charges that he had murdered Robert Ouko, the foreign minister. After his acquittal by the Nairobi High Court, he was dismissed from his job and put under constant surveillance by President Moi's intelligence service. Fearing for his life, Anguka fled to the United States and was granted asylum. In exile, he published a book, Absolute Power: The Ouko Murder Mystery in which he named people whom he believes were involved in the murder plot, examined the police role in the cover-up, and listed possible motives for the assassination.

Claudia Anthony (Sierra Leone), journalist, has contributed to many independent newspapers in Freetown and to the BBC World Service. She is best known for writing about the rights of women and children. In February 1997, she founded her own paper, Tribune of the People. She is also the founder and executive director of the Alliance for Female Journalists in Sierra Leone. In January 1998, the ruling junta warned her to stop filing reports to the BBC, a serious threat in the context of Sierra Leone's brutal civil war. Anthony continued reporting. One month later, after that day's paper had published a story describing a looting incident carried out by a well-known rebel commander, armed rebels stormed her office. She escaped by pretending to be someone else. During the rebel invasion in January 1999, armed men damaged and looted the offices of The Tribune of the People, and it was forced to close. Anthony stayed in Freetown at great risk.

Taoufik Ben Brik (Tunisia) is one of the few journalists to break the silence of self-censorship that has pervaded the Tunisian press under President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. As a result, Ben Brik has repeatedly been the target of government harassment. His passport was confiscated to prevent him from leaving Tunisia; he was physically assaulted by presumed state agents; his phone lines are frequently cut, and his family's property has been vandalized by suspected plainclothes policemen. On April 3, 2000, Ben Brik was summoned before a state prosecutor for questioning about articles he wrote for European newspapers about the human rights situation in Tunisia. He then began a hunger strike to protest his treatment and that of other human rights defenders. After twenty-eight days, the government dropped the charges against him and gave him a new passport. Ben Brik continued his hunger strike until his brother was also released.

Yorro Jallow (The Gambia) is the founder and managing editor of the Independent, a bi-weekly newspaper that strives to provide an alternative to the country's pro-government press. One month after launching the paper, Jallow and his staff were arrested, held but not charged, threatened, and released. The next day, they were told to report to the National Intelligence Agency with documents relating to the newspaper's registration. After several weeks of hassling, the paper resumed publication. Jallow suspects the harassment is due, at least in part, to an editorial that the paper ran condemning human rights abuses committed in The Gambia.

Gakoko John (Uganda-Kenya) was born to a Tutsi Rwandan refugee family in southern Uganda and escaped to Kenya in 1981 when the Ugandan army accused his family of sympathizing with the rebels and murdered them all except his cousin and himself. He lived freely in Nairobi for more than a decade until a new Kenyan policy forced him into Kakuma Refugee Camp. In the camp, he has been writing articles and poetry for the newsletter and teaching in the adult education program. In 1996, when Hutu refugees arrived in Kakuma, they started to harass him, alleging that his writing showed a Tutsi bias that made him an unwelcome neighbor. In February 1998, they set fire to his house at 2 a.m. while he slept. He narrowly escaped and has been living in fear for his life.

Mohsen Kadivar (Iran) is a legal scholar whose writing on the theology of freedom has been critical of the doctrine of Velayat-e Faqih (Rule of the Supreme Jurist), an innovation in Shi'te political thought instituted in Iran by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. This controversial theory places temporal and spiritual power in the hands of the most qualified religious scholar. Kadivar and an increasing number of religious scholars in Iran have questioned the religious authenticity of this form of autocratic rule. In 1999, Kadivar was convicted by the Special Court for Clergy and sentenced to eighteen months in prison on charges of having spread false information about Iran's "sacred system of the Islamic Republic" and of helping enemies of the Islamic revolution.

Zeljko Kopanja (Bosnia), editor of Nezavisne Novine, Bosnia's main independent paper, received numerous complaints and death threats after publication of front page articles giving detailed accounts of war crimes committed by Serbian armed forces in Bosnia. On October 22, 1999, he was seriously wounded when a bomb exploded as he opened his car door. Doctors were forced to amputate both his legs. The perpetrators have not been found, and Kopanja continues to write.

Christiana Lambrinidis (Greece) writes experimental conflict-resolution plays based on testimony of women living in areas of ethnic or political conflict. Following production of one play in Athens in 1998, she received death threats, there was a bomb scare at the theater, her women's literature seminar was canceled, government funding that had been promised was withheld, and book stores refused to stock her book.

Hamide Berisha-Latifi (Kosovo), journalist, received death threats, lost her job, was harassed, beaten, and arrested for her work as a writer. In March 1998, she discovered that her name was on a police "blacklist." Soon afterward, after taking a photo of the police beating an Albanian student at a peaceful demonstration in Pristina, she was turned over to the police by a Serbian journalist. She pretended to be a foreigner and was released. Unable to work, she went to England, where she coordinated the Alliance of Kosova Journalists and edited its magazine, Pa Cenzure-Uncensored. In May 2000, she returned to Kosovo.

Li Shizheng (China), a journalist and poet, is widely known under his pen name Duo Duo. In 1989, while attending an international poetry festival, he gave interviews that made it dangerous for him to return to post-Tiananmen China. He settled in Holland and is struggling to publish.

Kadhim-Joni Mahdi (Iraq), fiction writer, was jailed in 1991 for speaking against the government and jailed again in 1994 for his involvement with a literary group. On release from prison, he fled via Jordan and Saudi Arabia to the United States where he was granted refugee status. He now lives in Phoenix, Arizona, and supports himself as a barber while trying to finish a novel.

Mamadali Makhmudov (Uzbekistan) is a poet in the traditional "dastan" style of epic verse, which typically features a hero with magical qualities. Under the Soviet government, the dastan was labeled "impregnated with the poison of feudalism" and Makhmudov was forced to repudiate his work. After the Soviet Union collapsed, his most famous work, Immortal Cliffs, was retroactively awarded the Cholpan Prize. In 1991, Makhmudov supported the political party of a fellow writer, Muhammad Salih. The party lost the elections and has been banned since 1993. Makhmudov was first arrested in 1994 when his house was raided and police produced a firearm as evidence that he was guilty of terrorism. This charge met with widespread disbelief and was dropped. Next he was charged with embezzlement and sentenced to four years in prison. An international campaign was mounted on his behalf, and when no evidence was produced, he was given a presidential amnesty and released. In February 1999, after a car bomb exploded in Tashkent, he was picked up and taken to an unknown location. He "reappeared" in May, was tried with little access to a lawyer, and sentenced to fourteen years in prison.

Nadire Mater (Turkey), journalist, writes about Turkish politics including the Kurdish issue. In 1999, she wrote Mehmet's Book, telling the stories of soldiers who fought in southeast Turkey. The book was published in April. A court banned it in June and ordered all remaining copies seized. Mater is on trial for "insulting the armed forces." If convicted, she could be sentenced to six years in prison.

Alejandra Matus (Chile), journalist, received her first death threat after recording a radio program in which she recounted stories that aimed to give a voice to the poor. In 1994, after she published a story that exposed corruption in Santiago's Military Hospital, complaints were filed against her for sedition and insulting the Chilean army. She narrowly escaped prosecution although the reports proved true. She continued political investigations, including inquiries into the "disappearance" of Chilean citizens under Pinochet and the murder of former Foreign Minister Orlando Letelier. In 1999 she published The Black Book of Chilean Justice, which was banned in Chile in April 1999. Facing arrest under a law that criminalizes "insulting" high government officials, she fled to the United States and was granted political asylum. At this writing, she does freelance reporting from Miami.

Tshimanga M'Baya (Democratic Republic of the Congo), journalist, is president and one of five founders of Journaliste en Danger (JED), a nongovernmental press freedom group that exposes and protests abuse and repression of journalists by the government of President Laurent Kabila. JED members have received countless anonymous telephone threats, been denounced as "traitors" in the pay of "imperialists," detained, questioned by intelligence service agents, and physically attacked.

Shannon McFarlin (United States), former reporter at the Celina Daily Standard, won first prize for investigative reporting from the Ohio Associated Press and a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 1991 for a year-long series on the local sheriff that resulted in his resignation and conviction on criminal charges. In 1996, a new publisher took over management of the paper. At the time McFarlin was working on a story about possible misuse of public funds by the new school district superintendent. Before writing the story, she was fired and threatened with court action if she tried to contact any school official, even as a private citizen. She was maligned in Daily Standard editorials by the publisher and the mayor. In an attempt to clear her name, she asked for and was denied speaking time at a local school board meeting.

Yilmaz Odaba i (Turkey), poet, writer, and journalist, is a native of southeast Turkey. Obada i was first arrested at age nineteen following the September 1980 military coup and charged with "disseminating separatist propaganda." He was held for several weeks during which he reported being tortured. In 1987, he was arrested again, prosecuted for membership in the Socialist Party, and sentenced to eight years in prison, but the sentence was overturned by the Turkish Supreme Court. In 1994, he served ten months in prison for writing about the uprising of Seihk Said. In 1998, he served six months of an eighteen-month sentence for writing Dreams and Life, a collection of essays on poetry and culture. In March 2000, he was returned to prison on a seven-month sentence for "insulting the court," a charge arising from comments he made while on trial.

Carlos Pulgarin (Colombia) is a journalist at El Tiempo, a Bogota-based national daily newspaper. Soon after Pulgarin reported on the assassination of indigenous activists by right-wing paramilitary forces, he began receiving death threats accusing him of being a front for the revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, Colombia's largest guerrilla movement. He spent two months in hiding, worked anonymously for three months without further harassment, and then the threats resumed. He was kidnapped and held briefly, so he fled to Peru where he made great efforts to conceal his whereabouts. But after a few weeks, he was again receiving threatening messages. The Peruvian government agreed to provide police protection for a limited period, and journalist groups arranged for him to go to Spain where he is seeking political asylum.

Reach Sambath (Cambodia), journalist for Agence France-Presse, has been on his own since the age of thirteen when his entire family except one brother was wiped out by the Khmer Rouge. In the past seven years, he has covered two elections, the death of Pol Pot, and various human rights and political issues. He has also been a volunteer journalism teacher in Phnom Penh.

Svetlana Slapsak (Serbia), university professor, has written fifteen books on semantics and literature, political essays, and a mock-adventure novel. She and her husband, a Slovenian, were active in the peace movement, and when war broke out, Slapsak was branded a traitor and fired. Unable to find work in Belgrade, she took a part-time job at the university in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, where her husband is a professor. She organized a women's group, "Silence kills; Let's speak up for peace!" This caused two colleagues to denounce her as a "Serbian spy," and she lost her part-time position. In 1995, she started a feminist quarterly, ProFemina, in Belgrade. It has been continually attacked by the state media. Several days after the NATO bombing began, police seized the building where ProFemina was located and took all its papers. ProFemina is now registered in Montenegro.

Abdolkarim Soroush (Iran), scholar and a leading proponent of political reform within the Islamic Republic, is the author of many books on Islamic philosophy. He has been banned from teaching since 1994. He has received harassing phone calls threatening him with imprisonmentif he continues to criticize the government, and has been subjected to intimidation and physical assault by religious conservatives and their supporters. He has periodically been denied permission to travel to international conferences.

Vu Thu Hien (Vietnam), writer of fiction and film scripts, was arrested in 1967 and held in prison without trial for eight years. Apparently Vu Thu Hien's arrest related to his father's disagreements with the leadership of the Vietnamese Communist Party, his father having been a high ranking party official until 1963. After Vu Thu Hien's release from prison, he wrote under a pseudonym, including a novel that won first prize from the Vietnam Writers Association in 1989. All the while, he was under surveillance by the Cultural Police. In 1993, he fled to Moscow, but word that he was writing a memoir leaked to the Vietnamese Embassy and Hanoi's secret police searched his apartment. He moved to Poland where he was warned that another attack was imminent. This forced him to flee and seek political asylum in Paris.

Pavel Zhuk (Belarus), editor of successive newspapers, has struggled to provide an independent source of news and analysis in the face of government efforts to silence all alternative views in Belarus. In November 1997, Svaboda was shut down by the Lukashenka regime in retaliation for coverage of the political opposition. Zhuk and his staff continued to produce an Internet version and resumed publishing in print in January 1998 under a new name, Naviny. In September 1999, after losing a libel suit filed by the head of Belarus' Security Council, Naviny was forced to close. Police raided Zhuk's home in an effort to collect the libel fine. He again continued publication via the Internet. In October the regime suspended registration of nine independent publications, including Nasha Svaboda, Zhuk's intended replacement for Naviny, which had not yet published its first issue. Zhuk's coverage of an anti-government demonstration in mid-October prompted the regime to order tax inspectors to audit Naviny's advertisers and its printer. The police issued an arrest warrant for Zhuk, who spent several weeks in hiding. International pressure caused the regime to suspend its pursuit of Zhuk and helped restore registration for Nasha Svaboda, which as of June 2000 was publishing five days a week and was posted on the Internet.


Copyright © 2001
Human RIghts Watch