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Iran: Writers Struggle to Uphold Freedom of Expression

Seven Iranian Writers Receive Hellman/Hammett Grants

Human Rights Watch announced today that seven Iranians are among the 45 writers from 22 countries who are receiving the prestigious Hellman/Hammett prize, an award that recognizes writers globally who have been victims of political persecution.

The Iranian recipients of this year’s award are writers and activists whose work and activities have been variously suppressed. Beyond what they themselves have experienced, they represent numerous other writers and journalists whose personal and professional lives have been hampered as a result of repressive government policies governing speech and publications.

“The past year was a particularly difficult one for Iranian writers who had to work in an ever more restrictive atmosphere of new publishing rules and policies,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “It is important to draw international attention to their achievements under the current repressive policies.”

Human Rights Watch administers the Hellman/Hammett grant program in recognition of the hardships faced by writers all around the world who have been victims of political persecution. The program is financed by the estate of the American playwright Lillian Hellman, with funds set up in her name and that of her long-time companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett, both of whom suffered professionally during the anti-communist “witch hunts” of the 1950s.

Since the election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the situation for Iranian writers has worsened. Authorities systematically suppress freedom of expression and opinion by closing newspapers and imprisoning journalists and editors. The few independent dailies that remain heavily self-censored. Many writers and intellectuals have left the country, are in prison, or have ceased to criticize the government in their writings. Recently imposed rules of publication have further narrowed the field of acceptable speech.

This year’s recipients of the Hellman-Hammett grant from Iran are:

  • Ali Ashraf Darvishian, 65, one of Iran’s most prominent and prolific post-revolutionary writers, has published more than 20 books, including fiction, children’s stories and a 20-volume collection of Iranian folk tales. For the past four years, government censors have banned the publication of his works.
  • Shahram Rafizadeh, 34, investigative journalist and blogger, also writes poetry and literary criticism. During the reform era, Rafizadeh was well known for writing about the role of Iranian intelligence agents in the murder of several writers and intellectuals in 1998. He was detained in September 2004 and was held in solitary confinement for 86 days.
  • Roozbeh Mir Ebrahimi, 27, worked as an editor and reporter for a number of reformist dailies that have since been shut down by the government. He investigated several high profile human rights cases, including the murder of a
    Canadian-Iranian photojournalist in 2003. He was detained in September 2004
    and held in solitary confinement for 60 days. He has written two books on
    contemporary Iranian political history that have not received government permission for publication.
  • Arash Sigarchi, 28, journalist and blogger, started his career in journalism at the age of 15. He was arrested in January 2005 after he reported on human rights violations on his blog. Originally sentenced to 14 years in prison, an appeals court reduced the sentence to three years. He was recently diagnosed with cancer and is receiving treatment outside of prison.
  • Ali Afshari, 33, political analyst and human rights advocate, was imprisoned in 2000 and held in solitary confinement for 328 days for his role in the student movement. He has written numerous articles and co-authored a book on political theory. When he left Iran in 2005, the Judiciary sentenced him to six years in prison.
  • Ensaf Ali Hedayat, 41, journalist, has reported extensively on human rights
    violations in the Iranian province of Azerbaijan. He was arrested in June 2003,
    spent 74 days in solitary confinement and 18 months in prison. He currently lives in exile and is writing his prison memoirs.
  • Hassan Zarezadeh Ardeshir, 29, journalist, has written extensively on the political environment and human rights issues in Iran. He has been arrested several times and spent nearly eight months in Evin prison in 2003. In 2005, he was forced into exile, but continues to report on human rights violations in Iran from abroad.

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