Thirty-four writers from 19 countries received Hellman/Hammett grants this year in recognition of the courage they showed when facing political persecution, Human Rights Watch said.
The Hellman/Hammett grants, administered by Human Rights Watch, are given annually to writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution. The grant program began in 1989 when the American playwright Lillian Hellman willed that her estate be used to assist writers in financial need as a result of expressing their views.
“The Hellman/Hammett grants aim to help writers who dare to express ideas that criticize official public policy or people in power” said Marcia Allina, who coordinates the Hellman/Hammett grant program.
Governments have used military and presidential decrees, criminal, libel, and sedition laws to silence this year’s group of Hellman/Hammett award winners. They have been harassed, assaulted, indicted, jailed on trumped-up charges, or tortured merely for providing information from nongovernmental sources. In addition to those who are directly targeted, many others are forced to practice self-censorship.
Hellman was prompted by her experiences during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, when she and her long-time companion, the writer Dashiell Hammett, were questioned by US congressional committees about their political beliefs and affiliations.
Nearly 700 writers have received grants over the 19 years of the program. The Hellman/Hammett funds, announced each spring, have distributed some $3 million to date. The Hellman/Hammett program also makes 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.
Some of this year’s recipients have asked to remain anonymous because of possible continuing danger to them and their families. Among those are three Iraqi writers and one from Cameroon, China, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.
Short biographies of those who can be safely publicized follow:
Kamram Mir Hazar (Afghanistan), 32, poet, essayist, journalist and blogger, was picked up outside the Kabul office of Internews Network on July 4, 2007 and held in incommunicado detention for five days under conditions that he likened to Guantanamo.
After his release, he was kept under surveillance. He and his wife, Zahra, began living at the Internews offices to ensure their safety. He was taken into custody again in August, questioned and released the same day. In fear of further harassment, Mir Hazar fled to India and applied for resettlement through the UN High Commission for Refugees. He now lives in Jessheim, Norway.
Eynulla Fatullayev (Azerbaijan), journalist and outspoken critic of the Azerbaijani government, wrote in various independent newspapers including the two largest, Realny Azerbaijan and Gundelik Azerbaijan, both of which he founded and headed as editor-in chief. He also wrote for the weekly magazine Monitor, whose editor was murdered in March 2005. All three publications have now been shut down. Fatullayev was convicted in September 2006 and April 2007 on charges of criminal libel and insult. In October 2007, he was convicted again, this time on charges of terrorism, inciting ethnic hatred, and tax evasion. The terrorism charges stem from an article he wrote criticizing the Azerbaijani government’s foreign policy. He is currently serving an 8½ year prison sentence.
Ganimed Zahidov (Azerbaijan), editor-in-chief of Azadlig, often criticized high-ranking government officials and as a result was subject to harassment, threats, and physical attacks. Officials brought numerous law suits against him personally and against his paper, resulting in hundreds of thousands of US dollars in fines. He was arrested in November 2007 and sentenced in March 2008 to four years in prison on hooligan charges which local and international observers consider spurious.
Sakit Zahidov (Azerbaijan), 49, journalist, poet, and satirist, uses the pen name Mirza Sakit. He is Ganimed’s brother. His poems, which often refer to government corruption, have been published in Azadlig, several other papers, and collected in two books. On June 23, 2006, one week after publication of his second collection, Zahidov was detained on spurious drug charges and sentenced to three years in prison.
Chheang Bopha and Duong Sokha (Cambodia), 28 and 27 respectively, reporters at Cambodge Soir, Cambodia’s leading French language daily newspaper. They quit in 2007 to protest the dismissal of a colleague who was fired for writing about a report by Global Witness, an international environmental organization that documented the alleged complicity of top government officials in illegal logging. Striking Cambodian staff elected Sokha as their spokesperson to demand that the fired journalist be reinstated and editorial independence be guaranteed. The owners responded by closing the paper and reopening it several months later under new editorial management. Most of the former employees returned to work without reassurance of editorial independence, but Sokha and Bopha refused despite intense pressure to do so. Instead they joined with other journalists to start an independent internet publication written in Cambodian and French Ka-Set (http://www.ka-set.info).
Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso (Cuba), 48, head of the Manuel Marquez Sterling Journalists Association and correspondent for Reporters Without Borders, was the editor of De Cuba, the first independent magazine to appear in Cuba since Castro came to power. Gonzalez was arrested in Havana on March 18, 2003. Police searched his home and seized a computer, a fax, a printer, cameras, tape-recorders and a lot of his writings. He was tried and convicted on April 4, 2003 for “acts against the independence or the territorial integrity of the State” and is serving a 20-year prison sentence. He has continued writing while in prison; a collection of his poetry, Hombres sin Rostro (Men without Faces) was published in September 2005. In 2004, he was operated on for gall stones and reportedly suffers from multiple health problems, including digestive problems, hypertension and hepatitis.
Wael Abbas (Egypt), 32, freelance journalist, covers issues considered taboo by Egyptian authorities like reporting on police brutality and workers’ strikes, documenting human rights abuses and campaigning to release political detainees. He uses video footage and colloquial Egyptian Arabic to reach a younger audience that might find classical Arabic stilted. Abbas says that the government issued arrest warrants for him and is trying to ruin his reputation by spreading lies that he converted to Christianity from Islam and is a homosexual. In 2006, an assistant minister of Interior for legal affairs went on TV to falsely state that Abbas had a criminal record. In 2007, harassment included suspension of his YouTube account and denial of access to his Yahoo email, both without explanation.
Nguele Felicia (Equatorial Guinea), reporter and deputy editor, covered government news for El Diaro, a privately owned newspaper that was shut down by the government due to its objectivity in reporting government wrongdoing. In 2006, after 17 years on the staff, Felicia was arrested, tortured and sentenced to eight months in prison for reporting on a scandal that included the president’s role in embezzlement of oil revenues.
Luis Alberto Perez Barillas (Guatemala), journalist, worked at his hometown radio station and as a regional correspondent for Prensa Libre, the country’s highest circulation daily newspaper and its sister publication Nuestro Diario. In June 2003, after he wrote about the involvement of ruling FRG party senior officials in the 1978-84 civil conflict that saw the massacre of 200,000 Guatemalans, Barillas started receiving telephone threats. A week later a homemade bomb exploded at his home. He went into hiding but the threats continued. He fled to Canada and is studying to improve his English.
Saroop Dhruv (India), poet and playwright, has a PhD in Gujarati language and folklore. Her writing has been censored and because of her human rights and anti-corruption messages. Dhruv’s plays were banned after the 2002 Gujarat pogrom in which as many as 2,000 people died. When she tried to produce a play about the pogrom, the local government refused to give her a permit for an auditorium.
Fatima Tlisova (Kabardino-Balkaria), journalist, worked for a number of independent outlets including Novoya Gazeta, the Russian news agency REGNUM, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and AP covering human rights violations, torture, detention, the rise of militant Islamic movements, and abuse of power by the authorities. In 2000, she was attacked by a gang of youths who did not like the way she was covering the presidential election. She was attacked and beaten in 2002 and again in 2004 by unidentified men who said this was “revenge” for publishing articles in English and assisting foreign journalists. Similar incidents followed in 2005 and 2006. In 2006 after her home was broken into, she suffered kidney failure but doctors were unable to diagnose the illness and refused to give her copies of the clinical test results. On returning home, her kidneys failed again, and in January 2007, she had a heart attack. She recovered quickly whenever she did not stay at home leading colleagues to conclude she was a victim of deliberate poisoning and her life was in danger. AP, her employer at the time, referred her to the US Embassy in Moscow. She applied for a visa, was granted refugee status and moved to the United States in March 2007. She studied English and has been awarded a Nieman fellowship at Harvard University for the academic year 2008/2009.
Stanislav Dmitrievski (Russia), editor-in-chief of Pravozashchita, a monthly paper of the banned Russian-Chechen Friendship Society, was charged in September 2002 under Article 282 of the Russian Criminal Code for inciting hatred between national groups and attempting to overthrow the government by publishing statements by Chechen rebel leaders. On February 3, 2006, Dmitrievski was found guilty at the Soviet District Court in Nizhny Novgorod of “inciting inter-ethnic hatred by using the mass media” and was given a two-year suspended sentence with four years probation. This puts him at risk of immediate imprisonment at any time.
Mohamed Amiin Sheik Adow (Somalia), 34, was the program director at Radio Shabelle, a leading Somali news outlet that covered both the government and the militia during the insurgency in Mogadishu. He was also a frequent contributor to international news organizations. On September 17, 2007, Somali Transitional National Government security forces raided Radio Shabelle and detained 19 staff members. They attacked again the next day and forced the station off the air. As program director, Amiin was often quoted about the attacks, which resulted in his receiving multiple death threats. On October 19, 2007, Radio Shabelle’s station manager was assassinated outside his home, and at least seven other journalists were killed during the year. Unable to work and targeted for reporting on the war, Amiin fled to Sweden and applied for asylum
Abdullahi Mohamed Hassan (Somalia) co-founded Qaran, one of the largest daily newspapers in Mogadishu and then set up, Ayaamaha, his own independent paper. He has been writing about the unjust treatment of some minority clans in Somalia and criticizing politicians and traditional elders for failing to address mistreatment to minority communities. In October 2007, Somali government forces raided his office and held him in prison for a day. After being released, he began receiving death threats. Then several gunmen visited his office but fortunately he was out and they left. This prompted him to flee to Nairobi.
Lucie Umukundwa (Rwanda) journalist. On August 14, 2006, while on assignment at a news conference for Reporters Sans Frontieres, Umukundwa asked the president of Rwanda why journalists were being harassed. Later that day, military intelligence officials visited her home. She was not there so they beat up her brother and threatened the rest of the family if Umukundwa continued “to snoop around what is not her business.” She felt she had to go into hiding and fled to Kampala, Uganda. The military has threatened to kill her if she returns to Rwanda.
Ulugbek Khaidarov (Uzbekistan), journalist, was threatened and attacked by Uzbek authorities for many years because he wrote about political injustices and human rights abuses. After the Andijan uprising in 2005, he continued writing under pseudonyms for online publications. On September 14, 2006, he was arrested, falsely charged with extortion, tried and sentenced to six years in prison. After serving two months (during which he was tortured), he was released in response to pressure by international media and human rights organizations. Within a month of his release, Khaidarov and his wife fled to Kazakhstan. Still pursued there, they registered with the UN High Commission for Refugees and were relocated to Vancouver, Canada.
Le Quoc Quan (Vietnam), 36, lawyer, who has written extensively on civil rights, political pluralism and religious freedom, was picked up by police four days after returning from five months spent in the United States on a National Endowment for Democracy fellowship. For several days after his arrest, his whereabouts were unknown and no charges against him were publicized. Quan was later charged under Article 79 of the Criminal Code for “activities aimed at overthrow of the government.” He was released on June 16, 2007. On November 27, 2007, while trying to attend an appeals court hearing on two fellow attorneys, Quan was beaten and taken to a local police station to prevent him from attending the hearing.
Le Thi Cong Nhan (Vietnam), 29, lawyer, a leading member of a new generation of young activists who are building organizations inside Vietnam with links to groups outside. She was a founding member of the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam and spokesperson for the Vietnam Progressive Party, one of several opposition parties that surfaced during a brief period in 2006 when the Vietnamese government temporarily eased restrictions on freedom of expression. As a frequent writer of appeals for democratic change in online newspapers and blogs, she has been subjected to harassment, intimidation and house arrest. She was arrested in March 2007, accused of disseminating “hostile propaganda” and sentenced to four years in prison on charges of disseminating propaganda against the government under article 88 of the criminal code.
Nguyen Phuong Anh (Vietnam), 36, is one of the most prolific and widely-read dissident writers in Vietnam today. Formerly a successful business man, he owned a 1,000-seat restaurant and a thriving import-export company. Then he became involved in the struggle for human rights and democracy and began writing satiric critiques of the government on Vietnamese websites. He is a staff member of the To Quoc (fatherland) underground bulletin, which is distributed quietly in Vietnam and through the internet. As soon as he became an activist, he was summoned to police headquarters and told to mind his own business. When he ignored the warnings, full fledged harassment began. Police came to his restaurant in uniform, state newspapers reported lies and the restaurant went out of business. Along with all this, he has been repeatedly detained and beaten by the police.
Father Thadeus Nguyen Van Ly (Vietnam), 60, one of the founders of the underground Tu Do Ngon Luan (Freedom of Expression), is receiving a Hellman/Hammett grant for the second time. Father Ly has been writing appeals for religious freedom, freedom of expression and a multi-party system in Vietnam for more than 30 years, resulting in 15 years spent in prison since 1977. While in prison in 2001, it is believed that he was drugged and beaten before a visit by a US congressional delegation so that his words were slurred and he uncharacteristically admitted to having committed criminal acts. He was released in 2005 and promptly returned to advocacy and dissident writing. Father Ly was one of the founders of the democracy movement in Vietnam known as Block 8406, named after the date of its inception on April 8, 2006. His latest arrest in February 2007 led to a prison sentence of another eight years on charges of disseminating propaganda against the government.
Nguyen Xuan Nghia (Vietnam), 58, journalist, also writes novels, short stories, poems and essays, comes from a family with strong revolutionary credentials; his father joined the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) in 1936 and his oldest brother was killed in the first Indochina war. Nguan Xuan Nghia continues to be a member of the Association of Vietnamese Writers despite his outspoken position against the VCP. As a journalist he wrote for all the main government papers until 2003 when the government banned him because of his pro-democracy activities. Since then, he has been arrested, detained and interrogated multiple times; his house has been searched twice; he has been denounced at public meetings and socially isolated. On November 27, 2007, he was badly beaten by policemen at the Hanoi court house when he showed up to demonstrate in support of two fellow dissidents who were on trial.
Nguyen Xuan Tu (Vietnam), 68, researcher in biology, is one of Vietnam’s most respected dissident writers. Writing under his pen name of Ha Sy Phu, he first became known in 1987 for his essay Let’s go forward hand in hand under the guide of Reason. He continued writing philosophical essays, satirical pieces and poetry that are published abroad and clandestinely in Vietnam. Over the past 20 years, he has suffered repression, social isolation, police interrogation, detention, imprisonment and house arrest. Because of his widespread influence on other dissident writers and the democracy movement, for the past 11 years he has been prohibited from owning a telephone or using the internet. Despite bad health, he continues to write and participate in the debate about democracy.
Pham Hong Son (Vietnam), 40, physician, writes articles and open letters that are circulated by hand in Vietnam and posted on websites of the Vietnamese diaspora. He was arrested and imprisoned in March 2002 on charges of espionage under article 80 of the criminal code for writing about human rights and democracy. Released in August 2006 he immediately resumed writing even though he is under administrative probation, a form of house arrest. He has been unable to find a job despite his training as a medical doctor and in business administration.