(New York) - Human Rights Watch announced today that 37 writers from 19 countries have received the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award in recognition of their commitment to free expression and their courage in the face of political persecution.
All are writers and activists whose work and activities have been suppressed. Beyond what they experienced themselves, they represent numerous other writers and journalists whose personal and professional lives have been disrupted as a result of repressive government policies governing speech and publications.
The Hellman/Hammett grants are administered by Human Rights Watch and 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 stipulated in her will that her estate should 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 charges, libel, and sedition laws to silence this year's Hellman/Hammett awardees. 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 the persecution that she and her longtime companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett, experienced during the 1950's anti-communist hysteria in the US when both were questioned by US congressional committees about their political beliefs and affiliations. Hellman suffered professionally and had trouble finding work. Hammett spent time in prison.
In 1989, the executors of Ms. Hellman's estate asked Human Rights Watch to devise a program to help writers who were targeted for expressing views that their government oppose, for criticizing government officials or actions, or for writing about things that their governments did not want reported.
Over the past 20 years, more than 700 writers from 91 countries have received Hellman/Hammett grants that give a maximum of $10,000, totaling more than $3 million. The program also gives 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.
Of this year's 37 recipients, six are from China, Iran, and Vietnam. Eighteen of the 37 asked to remain anonymous because of possible continuing danger to them and their families. Among them are writers from Burma, China, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Russia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tunisia, Vietnam, and Zimbabwe.
Short biographies of those who can be safely publicized follow.
Saw Wei (Burma) is a romantic poet and a performance artist who is currently in Mandalay prison. At the time of his arrest, he headed the "White Rainbow" poetry recital group, which raised money for AIDS orphans.
Saw Wei first ran into trouble for taking part in the 1988 uprising, which caused him to be fired from his job at the government communications office. Then in January 2008, he was arrested and charged with intent "to commit an offense against the state" The conviction was linked to a love poem he wrote titled "February 14th ", an eight-line poem about Valentine's Day that cryptically criticized General Than Shwe, head of Burma's ruling military junta. When the first letters of each line are put together, they read "General Than Shwe is crazy with power." The poem was published in the magazine Love Journal, which sold out as word spread about the coded message. Saw Wei appeared in court three times without legal representation, was convicted in November 2008, and was sentenced to two years in prison.
Hu Jia (China), a prolific commentator, and human rights activist, wrote about other Chinese rights defenders as well as personal essays on issues ranging from the environment to Buddhism, political reform, and freedom of expression.
In 2007, Hu co-signed several open letters drawing attention to human rights concerns in China and testified by audio link at a European Parliament hearing. One month later he was detained and then formally arrested in January 2008. In April, at a trial that failed to meet minimum standards of fairness, he was convicted of "inciting subversion of state power" and sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. The government rejected an application for medical parole despite a diagnosis of "acute liver cirrhosis."
Shi Tao (China), poet and writer, worked as a reporter and editor at a number of newspapers and has published several volumes of poetry.
He is best known in the West as the victim of Yahoo's cooperation with the Chinese police. In a now-famous case, Yahoo helped the Chinese police identify Shi Tao as the author of a message posted anonymously on an overseas website about instructions that the Chinese propaganda department had given to newspapers. He is currently serving a 10-year sentence for "illegally providing state secrets overseas."
Tsering Woeser (China, Tibet), poet, journalist, editor, was a member of the "Chinese Writers' Group," a small literary elite of Tibetans writing in the Chinese language.
Woeser's troubles began in 2003, when her second book, a collection of short stories and prose, became a best-seller in China. It was soon banned. Then in June 2004, she lost her job at the Tibet Autonomous Region Literature Association. She left Lhasa and moved to Beijing but continued to write on Tibetan culture and the political situation, publishing in Taiwan and on the Internet. She was awarded the Norwegian Author Union's 2007 Freedom of Expression Prize, but Chinese authorities barred her from going to Oslo to accept the award. When demonstrations broke out across Tibet in March 2008, Woeser was placed under house arrest, her blog was hacked, and her email accounts were hijacked. In August 2008, when she went to Lhasa to visit her mother, she was detained by police, accused of photographing the army and police, and forced to return to Beijing.
Nurmuhemmet Yasin (China), writer, poet, journalist, is of Uighur heritage, China's Turkish-speaking Muslim minority that is struggling to maintain its culture in the face of China's efforts to limit cultural and religious diversity.
Yassin was arrested in 2004 after publication of "Wild Pigeon," an allegorical story about the son of a pigeon king who is trapped and caged by humans while on a mission to find a new home for his flock. After a closed trial at which he was denied representation, Yassin was convicted of inciting Uighur separatism and sentenced to 10 years in prison. No visitors have been permitted since his arrest, and he is currently being held in Urumqi No. 1 Prison.
Diro César González (Colombia), journalist, is the editor of La Tarde de Santander, one of the few sources of independent news in Barrancabermeja.
Gonzalez started receiving death threats in 2006 after his newspaper reported on a murder investigation and the detention of a paramilitary fighter in connection with the killing. When two people came to his house with a gun, he and his wife fled to Bogotá. They continued producing La Tarde de Santander in Bogotá despite continuing to receive death threats in the form of bullets sent to the office, threatening phone calls, and invitations to their own funerals. At first the government provided some protection, but then local police stopped patrolling the area where they live. Gonzalez has been moving back and forth between Barrancabermeja and Bogotá for his own safety.
Tedros Abraham Tsegay (Eritrea), journalist, worked for the state-run daily, Hadas Eritrea but his objective reporting provoked government officials and in 2003 he lost his job.
In 2005, Abraham was detained and harshly questioned for his translation of English language scholarly works that he planned to publish with the title The Rise of America as a Superpower. Authorities destroyed all copies of his work. He then became part of a network of Eritreans disseminating information on imprisoned Eritrean journalists to the Eritrean media in exile. In 2007, when his involvement with the pro-democracy websites was exposed, he fled to Sudan, where he lived in semi-hiding, always in fear of Eritrean capture. In August 2009, he received refugee status in Norway and in his own words "became part of the free world."
Fatou Jaw Manneh (Gambia), journalist, received political asylum in the United States in late 1994 after the coup that brought President Yahya Jammeh to power.
Manneh continued writing about Gambia from the US, focusing on the widespread poverty and corruption in Jammeh's regime. In March 2007, she went back to Gambia to visit family and attend her father's funeral. She was arrested at the airport and charged with sedition for the criticism in her writing. Her case bounced around the courts until in August 2008, when she was convicted. She was allowed to substitute a hefty fine for a four-year prison sentence. A combination of family and the Gambian Press Union paid the fine, and she was given permission to return to the US.
Arash Sigarchi (Iran), journalist and blogger, started his career in journalism as a teenager writing on sports for local publications. While at university in Tehran, he reported for reformist newspapers. In 2000, he moved back to his home town in northern Iran and edited Gilan-e-Emrouz (Gilan Today), a small local paper. About this time he also set up a blog, "Panjare Eltehab" (Window of Anguish) which featured news, commentary, and poetry.
Sigarchi became a prominent member of Iran's online dissident community reporting human rights violations on his blog. He was arrested in 2005 as part of a sweeping crackdown on the opposition. Convicted on trumped up charges of espionage and undermining national security, he was sentenced to three years in prison. After more than a year in prison, he was diagnosed with mouth cancer and granted medical leave. In 2008, he fled to the United States and has been granted asylum.
Jin I. Choi (North Korea), poet, fled to South Korea to escape famine.
Since 2007, Choi has been working as editor in chief of Rimjingang (Rimjin River). Rimjingang, a current affairs magazine, was named for the river that flows from North Korea to South Korea as a symbol of the flow of communication the editors are trying to achieve. It publishes articles researched by North Koreans living in North Korea who secretly send information out of the country. Ms. Choi and her husband publish the articles in South Korea and send copies to North Korean diplomatic facilities overseas. The work is dangerous and expensive.
Anwar Shakir (Pakistan), journalist, is a contract writer for Agence France-Presse and a freelancer for several Urdu news outlets covering Wana, one of Pakistan's most dangerous areas.
In February 2005, while Shakir was on the way back from covering the signing of a peace agreement between a local tribe and the Pakistani military in South Waziristan, two men attacked the van he was riding in and he was shot in the stomach. Two of his colleagues died in the attack, but Shakir survived and returned to work. In 2007, during a clash between local tribes and Uzbek militants, his house was looted and damaged. In July 2008, a Taliban group distributed leaflets in Wana threatening to kill three local journalists; Shakir was one of them. This prompted him and his family to move to Peshawar where safety concerns still restrict his work and income.
Eleneus Akanga (Rwanda), journalist, has been a source of tangible, credible information for Human Rights Watch.
In 2007, he was fired for writing about journalists getting beat up by people who were suspected of being government agents, and was then falsely accused of espionage. With the help of Reporters Sans Frontières, a Guardian columnist, and others who knew his work, Akanga was granted asylum in the UK. From there, he has continued to write articles and keep up his contacts in East Africa on the chance that it will become safe for him to return to Rwanda or a neighboring country.
Dolma Kyab (Tibet), teacher and song writer, has written on the environmental protection, women's health, democracy, and religion. His lyrics are known for expressing strong Tibetan nationalist sentiments.
Dolma Kyab was arrested in Lhasa at the school where he was teaching on March 9, 2005. He was held in the TAR Public Security Detention Center until his trial on September 16, when he was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison. An appeal by his family was rejected, and the sentence was confirmed. The basis for his arrest and conviction was an unpublished manuscript of a book titled Restless Himalayas that covers issues such as democracy, autonomy, and Tibet. He remains in prison despite reports that he is in poor health.
Perihan Magden (Turkey), columnist for Radikal a Turkish language newspaper published in Istanbul, has also written novels, short stories, and poetry.
Magden has faced charges at various times for writing about the right to conscientious objection and for expressing anti-military views. She has also received numerous death threats. In December 2007, she received a 14-month suspended prison sentence for the crime of "insult" for reporting what locals said about the governor of Yuksekova District.
Nguyen Hoang Hai, alias Dieu Cay (Vietnam), is a prominent blogger imprisoned for hard-hitting postings that called for democracy and an end to corruption in Vietnam.
He is a former soldier who, under the pen name of Dieu Cay ("the Peasant Water Pipe"), also wrote blogs that criticized Vietnam's accommodationist policies to its northern neighbor, China. In 2006, he was one of the founding members of the Club of Free Journalists. Dieu Cay was placed under police surveillance in early 2008, prior to anti-China protests during the Olympic Torch relay in Ho Chi Minh City. He was arrested on April 19, 2008, and charged with tax fraud, widely seen as a baseless pretext to punish him for his critical blogs and political activities. He was held until his trial in September 2008, when he was sentenced to 2½ years in prison. Initially detained in Chi Hoa prison in Ho Chi Minh City, he was reportedly transferred to Cai Tau prison in Ca Mau province in early 2009.
Nguyen Thuong Long (Vietnam), a respected secondary school superintendent and teacher, has emerged as a leading dissident writer in Vietnam since his retirement in 2007.
While superintendent, he was known for his articles in state newspapers and educational journals critiquing the Vietnamese educational system. He wrote about endemic corruption in the system, including widespread cheating on exams and the buying and selling of educational posts. In 2001, he presented a hard-hitting paper denouncing the flaws in Vietnam's educational system at an annual teachers' conference in Ha Tay. Although his paper was widely reprinted in government journals and newspapers and posted online, he was suspended for five years. In 2007, convinced that it was useless to achieve reform from inside, he retired from teaching and joined the board of editors of To Quoc (Fatherland), a dissident review. Since joining To Quoc, he has been repeatedly harassed, detained, interrogated, and held under house arrest.
Pham Thanh Nghien (Vietnam), a gifted writer and democracy activist, has been detained without trial since her arrest a year ago.
In 2007, when the wool company where she worked went bankrupt, Pham Thanh Nghien started advocating on behalf of landless farmers and writing articles calling for human rights and democracy. Authorities barred her from attending the trial of her close friend, democracy campaigner Le Thi Cong Nhan, and she has been repeatedly harassed by the police, who regularly bring her in for aggressive questioning. In June 2008, she was detained after co-signing a letter to the Public Security Ministry that requested authorization to organize a peaceful demonstration against corruption. A few days later, she was attacked and beaten by hooligans, who threatened her life if she continued "hostile actions" against the state. She was arrested in September 2008 and is currently detained at Thanh Liet (B-14) detention center in Hanoi.
Thich Thien Minh (Vietnam), a Buddhist monk from Bac Lieu province, was jailed for protesting the government's religious intolerance.
He spent 26 years in prison (1976-2005), including Xuan Phuoc and Xuan Loc prisons, where he suffered severe torture. Since his release, he has not been allowed to re-enter his pagoda. He remains under house arrest and has been harassed for forming an association of former religious and political prisoners. Nevertheless, he has become a leading spokesperson for the human treatment of prisoners. Thich Thien Minh's 2007 memoir about his prison experience provides a rare and detailed look at conditions in Vietnamese prisons and re-educations camps.
Tran Anh Kim, also known as Tran Ngoc Kim (Vietnam), a former lieutenant colonel and former deputy political commissar in the Vietnamese Peoples' Army, is currently waiting trial for his pro-democracy writings and activities.
Tran Anh Kim was known for circulating petitions protesting injustice and corruption in the Vietnamese Communist Party. In 1991, in an effort to silence him before the 7th Party Congress, he was arrested and accused of "abuse of power to steal public wealth." After the Congress he was released without trial and restored to his army post. He was arrested again in 1994, sentenced to two years in prison and downgraded to second-class soldier. He was released after one year and again began to denounce the accusations against him. In 1997, in an apparent attempt at reconciliation, he was promoted to major. But he stubbornly continued to demand justice and was expelled from the army, losing all rights, including his pension. In 2006, he became known as a dissident writer, having joined the pro-democracy movement known as Block 8406, named after the April 8, 2006 founding date. He also served on the editorial board of the bi-weekly, To Quoc. On July 6, 2009, he was arrested for connections to the banned Democratic Party of Vietnam and charged with disseminating anti-government propaganda under article 88 of Vietnam's penal code.
Vi Doc Hoi (Vietnam), a member of the Tay ethnic group from northern Lang Son province and former high-ranking district party cadre, was expelled from the Vietnamese Communist Party and placed under house arrest for his democracy writings.
Vi Doc Hoi was born into a communist family and holds degrees in politics, economics, and law. He joined the party in 1980, quickly rising to prestigious positions in his district. In 2006, he began writing articles criticizing the party and calling for democratic reforms - first under pen names, and after he was expelled from the party in 2007, under his own name. In March 2007, when it became known that he was author of numerous dissident texts, he was detained for a week, expelled from the party, and dismissed from his positions. Since then he has been under house arrest, with police stationed in front of his house to threaten and discourage people from visiting him. He is regularly brought to police headquarters for interrogation and has twice been denounced at public meetings. His wife, a primary school teacher, has also been expelled from the party for refusing to denounce him.