(New York) - Eight Vietnamese writers are among a diverse group of 34 writers from 19 countries to receive Hellman/Hammett awards this year in recognition of the courage they showed when facing political persecution, Human Rights Watch said today.
The Hellman/Hammett awards, administered by Human Rights Watch, are given annually to writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution or human rights abuses. 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.
This year’s prize winners from Vietnam include Father Nguyen Van Ly, one of the leaders of the democracy movement in Vietnam. He has been repeatedly imprisoned during the last 30 years for his written appeals calling for human rights, religious freedom, and freedom of expression. At his most recent trial in March 2007, in which he was sentenced to another eight years in prison, police placed their hands over Father Ly’s mouth to prevent him from speaking.
“The Vietnamese phrase for censorship, ‘bit mieng,’ means to cover the mouth,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There is no stronger image of the dismal state of freedom of expression in Vietnam today than the photograph of police physically muzzling Father Ly during his trial.”
The Vietnamese authorities have used both official and unofficial sanctions to silence this year’s Hellman/Hammett award winners from Vietnam. Dissident writers have been harassed, assaulted, indicted, jailed on trumped-up charges, dismissed from their jobs, socially isolated, detained and interrogated by police, publicly humiliated in officially orchestrated “Peoples’ Tribunals,” and injured by officially sanctioned mobs or targeted traffic “accidents.”
“Many people around the world do not know that Vietnamese writers are being locked up for simply expressing their views,” said Adams. “That makes it more important than ever to recognize the brave writers who have suffered persecution or sacrificed their freedom in order to push for a free press, human rights, and a multi-party system in Vietnam.”
Human Rights Watch has administered the Hellman/Hammett awards since 1989, awarding nearly 700 writers over the 19 years of the program. 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.
Short biographies of seven of the eight Vietnamese writers who can be safely publicized follow below:
Le Quoc Quan, 36, is a lawyer who has written extensively on civil rights, political pluralism and religious freedom. He was detained by police four days after returning home from spending five months 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, but charges against him are still pending. 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, 29, is a lawyer widely recognized as a leader in 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 harassed, intimidated and placed under house arrest. She was arrested in March 2007, and sentenced to four years in prison, which was later reduced to three years, on charges of disseminating propaganda against the government under article 88 of the criminal code.
Nguyen Phuong Anh, 36, is one of the most prolific and widely read dissident writers in Vietnam today. A former businessman, he owned a 1,000-seat restaurant and a thriving import-export company. After he became involved in the struggle for human rights and democracy, he 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 bankrupt. 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, 60, one of the founders of the underground Tu Do Ngon Luan (Freedom of Expression) review, 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, an endeavor that has resulted in him spending 15 years in prison since 1977. During one prison stint 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, 58, is a journalist who also writes novels, short stories, poems and essays. He 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. 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. He is a member of the editorial board of To Quoc (Fatherland) Review, an underground pro-democracy publication. He is also a standing committee member of Block 8406 and the Alliance for Democracy for Human Rights. 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, aka Ha Sy Phu, 68, is a biology researcher and 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, 40, is a physician who 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 and posting them on the internet. Released in August 2006, he immediately resumed writing, even though he is under administrative probation, a form of house arrest. One of Vietnam’s most prominent dissidents, he has been unable to find a job since his release from prison, despite his training as a medical doctor and in business administration.