A diverse group of writers from 20 countries have received Hellman/Hammett grants in recognition of the courage with which they faced political persecution, Human Rights Watch announced.
Among the recipients is Daniel Bekoutou whose reports played a key role in the international effort to hold Chadian dictator Hissene Habre accountable for crimes against humanity committed under his rule. The Hellman/Hammett awards also recognize Maria Petreu for her outspoken criticism of extreme right ideology in Romania and Esmat Qaney whose writings have been burned and banned by successive Afghan regimes.
Each year, Human Rights Watch presents Hellman/Hammett grants to writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution. The 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. This year's grants totaled $175,000.
In many countries, governments use military and presidential decrees, criminal libel, and sedition laws to silence critics. Writers and journalists are threatened, harassed, assaulted, or jailed merely for providing information from nongovernmental sources. In addition to those who are directly targeted, many others are forced to practice self-censorship.
Short biographies of the recipients who received grants in 2001 follow.
Aung Pwint (Burma), a poet whose work expresses the feelings of ordinary people about the social and economic crisis in their country, was arrested in 1967 and again in 1978 because of his contacts with the student movement. During the 1988 pro-democracy movement, he acted as joint secretary of the People's Peaceful Demonstration Committee in the Delta region. Subsequently, he joined a fledgling media group, which produced videos and calendars. In 1996, the military government banned his videos because they were considered to show too negative a picture of Burmese society and living standards. In 1999, he was arrested and sentenced to eight years in prison.
Mikel Azurmendi (Spain), who writes poetry, children's tales, political commentary, and social anthropological essays on Basque history, is a professor of social anthropology at the University of Bilbao. His major contribution has been to deconstruct the theory of "ethnic exclusionism" that radical nationalists use to define the Basque historical experience. In the 1960s, Mr. Azurmendi was a member of the armed separatist group ETA. After its violent attacks on the Franco regime, he left to join the Basque pro-democracy movement. He is a founder of the Foro Ermua, one of the most prestigious groups promoting peace and democracy in the Basque region. Meanwhile, ETA has systematically subjected him to verbal abuse, painting "Azurmendi to the firing wall" on his office, and distributing pamphlets urging that he be killed. After a bomb attack in August 2000, he fled to the United States.
Bei Ling (China), poet and essayist, came to the United States in 1988 on an exchange with a Chinese-language newspaper. After the Tiananmen Square protest, he stayed and founded Tendency Quarterly, a scholarly literary magazine. Since 1998, he has spent most of his time in China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan researching, writing and editing. In 2000, he rented an apartment and opened editorial offices in Beijing. After printing the summer issue of Tendency, he was detained and charged with "illegal publication." Beijing security forces interrogated him and threatened a ten-year prison term. They offered leniency if he provided information about the identity of Chinese citizens who had helped to produce Tendency. He refused. After an international protest, he was fined $24,000 and released.
Daniel Bekoutou (Chad) is an investigative journalist, whose problems started when he uncovered financial scandals in health and environmental programs in Senegal, where he lived in exile. In November 1999, he was attacked and badly beaten by operatives who accused him of writing overly critical articles on Chad's President Idress Deby. Mr. Bekoutou then began covering the case of Hissene Habre, Chad's exiled former dictator who was indicted in Senegal on torture charges. Bekoutou wrote numerous articles exposing political killings, torture, and disappearances during the Habre regime. He played a key role in keeping newspapers from prematurely leaking news of the indictment, which would have given Habr?time to flee. The day after Habre's indictment, Bekoutou began receiving death threats. Fearing for his life, he fled to Paris.
Bui Ngoc Tan (Vietnam) started a career in journalism in 1954 writing in accord with the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) line. Gradually, he became critical of the VCP perspective. In 1968, he was arrested as a "revisionist and antiparty element" and imprisoned without trial from 1968 to 1973. After his release, he wrote stories and novels but was banned from publishing and had to earn his living as a laborer. In 1995, he was permitted to publish again. Nhung Nguoi Rach Viec (These People with Nothing to Do), published in 1995, and Mot Ngay Dai Dang Dang (A Very Long and Boring Day), published in 1999, are mildly critical of the ruling regime. In 2000, he published Chuyen Ke Nam 2000 (Story Told in Year 2000), a denunciation of the communist detention policy. This book was too much for the censors; it was recalled and burned. He has undergone numerous interrogations and is now under surveillance.
Chan Mony (Cambodia), journalist, has written mostly on social issues and public safety - law enforcement, robberies, mob violence, and street demonstrations. He currently works for the Evening News, a paper generally regarded as leaning toward the ruling Cambodian People's Party. In March 1997, while covering a peaceful demonstration in front of the National Assembly, someone threw grenades into the crowd killing at least sixteen people and injuring hundreds of others. Mony's right leg was broken, and shrapnel pierced his left eye. Members of a bodyguard unit of Prime Minister Hun Sen were implicated in the attack, but no one has ever been arrested. Mony's eye injury flared up again, putting him in constant pain.
Mridula Garg (India) is a prolific writer in many genres, including fiction, plays, essays, and journalism. In 1979, she was charged under the penal code with writing pornographic literature, and a warrant was issued for her arrest based on two pages from one novel. The literary magazine, Sarika, conducted a campaign against her, branding her a woman who wrote "shock value fiction" and causing her subsequent books to be denied their due literary assessment.
Carmen Gurruchaga (Spain) is a journalist who has covered nationalism, Basque politics, and terrorism-related issues in print and on radio and television since 1989. In December 1997, a bomb was found on the front door of the apartment where she lived with her two sons. She had written a front-page story about a fugitive Basque youth who was acquitted by a jury in a controversial trial even though he had admitted killing two policemen. This forced her to move from her lifelong home in San Sebastian to Madrid. Her name is often found on "black lists," and Molotov cocktails have been thrown at her office.
Kong Bun Chhoeun (Cambodia), novelist and songwriter, has been writing prolifically since the 1950s but stopped and became a farmer while the Khmer Rouge were in power. If he had revealed his identity during their regime, it is likely he would have been killed. Cambodia is now moving toward democracy, but powerful people continue to ignore the law. The plot of his last book, The Destiny of Marina, or Acid-Laced Vengeance, published in 2000, bore many similarities to the 1999 scandal of a karaoke singer who was attacked with acid by the jealous wife of a government official. The book details the problem of official impunity in Cambodia. After publication, Kong Bun Chhoeun received death threats from the husband of the woman who had mutilated the singer. In November 2000, he fled to Thailand.
Moncef Marzouki (Tunisia) is a medical doctor and leading human rights activist whose writing is banned in Tunisia. Some of his work has been published in Arabic in Egypt; some has been published in Europe in French. In 1994, after Dr. Marzouki entered the presidential election against the incumbent, he was jailed for four months, and the government closed the community medical clinic that he founded. Threats to Dr. Marzouki and his family caused his wife and daughters to move to Europe. In June 1999, he was abducted by security officials and held incommunicado for several days. He has been denied a passport, making him unable to travel abroad for professional reasons or to visit his family. He has faced repeated judicial investigations on spurious charges. In December 2000, he was sentenced to one year in prison for "defaming the authorities" and "spreading false information."
Gemechu Melka Tufa, pen name Motii Biya, (Ethiopia), journalist and author of several books on Oromo society and history, was arrested in 1997. His arrest is believed to be connected to newspaper columns he wrote and his membership in the Ethiopian Human Rights League. He was held without charge or trial for more than two years, and then suddenly released on bail. At first he returned to Addis Ababa, but soon realized that his safety could not be guaranteed if he remained in Ethiopia. He was granted refugee status and received political asylum in Canada.
Dunya Mikhail (Iraq) is a widely published poet and journalist, whose allegorical book, Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea, was banned in Iraq. She wrote anti-war poems that could not be published in Iraq because they were deemed "subversive." Warned that her "life is at risk" if she doesn't "stop anti-government writings" she sought asylum and fled to the United States.
Octovanius Mote (Indonesia), bureau chief in the capital of Irian Jaya (West Papua) for Indonesia's biggest and best-known newspaper, Kompas, served as rapporteur for a "national dialogue" on Irian Jaya between President Habibie and 100 community leaders. Habibie's participation was conditioned on acceptance of a ban on discussion of independence. While in Jarkarta for the dialogue, the leaders presented Habibie with a petition demanding independence. A few months later, Mr. Mote and four intellectuals who had been involved in the dialogue, were blacklisted on fabricated charges that they had been buying arms. The blacklisting was intended to keep them from leaving the country, but it was announced the same day that Mr. Mote was scheduled to go to the United States as part of a U.S. Information Agency Visitors Program, and he made it out. The Open Society Institute gave Mr. Mote a grant to stay at Cornell University for a year. Just as he was getting ready to go back, the crackdown on the independence movement took a sharp turn for the worse and caused him to postpone his return.
Hasan Mujtaba (Pakistan), journalist, has written extensively on political corruption, the role of senior politicians and their aides in the drug trade, trafficking Bangladeshi women into Pakistan with the help of Pakistani border forces, recruitment of teenage students from Islamic seminaries to fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan, urban decay, and male homosexuality. He is also a published poet in his native language, Sindhi. Mr. Mujtaba's life has been threatened repeatedly, most recently prompted by his research into treatment of Pakistan's Hindu minority. In April 1999, he came to the U.S. to receive an award from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and stayed to seek asylum.
Grigory Pasko (Russia), journalist and naval officer, was arrested in 1997 and charged with state treason (article 275 of the criminal code) in retaliation for his writing about the dumping of radioactive waste in the Sea of Japan. Russian authorities claimed that he intended to pass state secrets to a foreign power. After spending twenty months in prison, he was acquitted of the treason charges and found guilty of a lesser charge, military misconduct. The Military Board of the Russian Supreme Court accepted the prosecution's appeal of the acquittal in November 2000, and the treason trial against him reopened in March 2001. If convicted, Pasko faces a prison sentence of twelve-to-twenty years. Pasko protested the three-year prison term for the military misconduct charge, which he was not required to serve.
Maria Petreu (Romania), poet, philosopher, and university professor in Cluj, founded and edits the magazine Apostrof, a rare voice of reason and integrity in Romania today. She has written critically about Romanian extreme right ideology, provoking repressive reactions from many antidemocratic political groups, gradually isolating herself and Apostrof. She regularly receives threats and was attacked by a mob at a public reading.
Pham Que Duong (Vietnam) started his career in the People's Liberation Army in 1945 at age fourteen. Over the next forty years, he rose to the rank of colonel. In 1982, he became editor in chief of Tap Chi Lich Su Quan Su (Military History Review) and devoted all of his time to writing. In 1986, he was fired because he refused to obey orders not to mention exploits of dismissed officers. In 1990, he was investigated and accused of supporting Tran Xuan Bach, Secretary General of the Vietnamese Communist Party for the seventh Congress, who was expelled for advocating pluralism. In 1990, Pham Que Duong quit the VCP in solidarity with a prominent outspoken dissident and became a democracy activist. His house has been searched several times, his telephone tapped, his e-mail suppressed, and he is often summoned to police headquarters for questioning.
Esmat Qaney (Afghanistan), novelist and short story writer, fled from Afghanistan's Zabol province in 1980 and subsequently settled in the Pakistani city of Quetta. Following the mujahideen takeover of Kabul in 1992, the government of President Burhanuddin Rabbani judged Qaney's novel The Fifth Marriage hostile to Islamic teachings and burned copies of it. In the summer of 2000, after publication of a collection of his stories, Zeera Ra Wastawai Khair Yusai (Send Charity, God Bless You), Taliban authorities now ruling Afghanistan found the book was an "insult to religious leaders" and issued a decree branding Qaney and his publisher, Mustafa Sahar, "apostates." Taliban supporters in Quetta seized all copies of the book and burned them outside a mosque. Fearing for his safety, Qaney left his family and went into hiding.
San San Nweh (Burma), novelist and poet, has spent long periods in prison for her political activities. She has been serving her current ten-year sentence since October 1994 for "fomenting trouble" by producing anti-government reports and sending them to foreign journalists. She has been offered freedom if she will renounce all political activity, but she has regularly refused despite being forced to sit cross-legged in a cramped cell with three other political convicts and barred from speaking for more than fifteen minutes a day. She is plagued with poor health - kidney infections, high blood pressure, and eye problems.
Wang Yiliang (China), poet and essayist, has been involved in underground literary activity since the early 1980s. State Security authorities have kept him under close surveillance, have regularly summoned him for interrogation and detention, and banned publication of his work. In January 2000, Wang Yiliang was arrested for "disrupting social order" and sentenced to two years of "reeducation through labor."
Sanar Yurdatapan (Turkey), songwriter and composer, has also written fiction and was a regular columnist for the Kurdish daily newspaper, Ozgur Gundem. Following the military coup in 1980, he lived in exile in Germany for eleven years. On his return in 1991, he threw himself into human rights work. He has developed an original method for attacking repression of free expression. When someone is convicted for expressing a non-violent opinion, he finds a prominent person to republish the statement and accompanies the republication with a disclaimer defending the person's right to express his views, not the views themselves. The republications are cheap photocopies, but this is enough to trigger prosecution under Turkish law. When prosecutors are reluctant to lodge charges against prominent people, Mr. Yurdatapan forces them to prosecute by threatening prosecution for not carrying out their duties. He has published forty-three Freedom for Freedom of Expression booklets. The first one caused ninety defendants to be charged. The last one had 70,000 publishers who are all now subject to state prosecution. The prosecutors usually find ways to avoid concluding the cases, but in attempts to stop Mr. Yurdatapan, they have lodged trumped up charges against him and imprisoned him three times.
Other recipients will remain anonymous because of the dangerous circumstances in which they are living.
The Hellman/Hammett grants are announced each spring. In the eleven previous years of the program, more than 400 writers received grants totaling nearly two million dollars. The Hellman/Hammett program also makes small emergency grants from time to time throughout the year to writers who have an urgent need to leave their country or who find themselves in desperate financial circumstances as a result of political persecution.