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(New York) - Six Vietnamese writers are among a diverse group of 37 writers from 19 countries to receive the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award this year, Human Rights Watch said today. The award honors 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.

"Honoring these writers shines a spotlight on the Vietnam that many people in the world do not see," said Elaine Pearson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "This is a place where the government harshly suppresses peaceful dissent, free speech, independent media, and open access to the internet, and does everything it can to silence its critics."

This year's prize winners from Vietnam include:

  • A blogger imprisoned for his hard-hitting postings calling for democratic reforms;
  • Several writers affiliated with To Quoc (Fatherland), an underground dissident bulletin;
  • A Buddhist monk who spent 26 years in prison for his religious beliefs and his writings;
  • A former People's Army officer turned poet and critic; and
  • An ethnic Tay writer from northern Vietnam who was dismissed from the Vietnamese Communist Party after it became known he supported the democracy movement.

Two of this year's awardees, Pham Thanh Nghien and Tran Anh Kim, are in prison, awaiting trial for their pro-democracy activities and writings.

Scores of government critics have been arrested and jailed in Vietnam over the past year. In early October 2009, courts in Hanoi and Haiphong sentenced nine dissidents to prison, including the well-known writer Nguyen Xuan Nghia, recipient of the 2008 Hellman/Hammett award. Another Hellman/Hammett recipient, the novelist and human rights activist Tran Khai Thanh Thuy - who was imprisoned for nine months in 2007 - was roughed up and detained by the police on October 8, after she tried to attend the trials of fellow dissidents In Hanoi and Haiphong.

"International recognition of Vietnam's dissident writers is more important than ever, with the Vietnamese government intensifying its crackdown," Pearson said. "The Hellman/Hammett financial support aims to help persecuted writers who may have been dismissed from their jobs or spent time in prison for daring to challenge those in power."

The Vietnamese authorities have used both official and unofficial sanctions to silence this year's award winners. 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. In addition to those who are directly targeted, others - particularly journalists working for the Vietnamese state media - are forced to practice self-censorship.

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.

Hellman was prompted by the persecution that she and her longtime companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett, experienced during the 1950s 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 Hellman's estate asked Human Rights Watch to devise a program to help writers who were targeted for expressing views that their governments 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 of up to US$10,000, totaling more than US$3 million. The program also gives small emergency grants to writers who urgently need to leave their country or who require immediate medical treatment after serving prison terms or enduring torture.

Of this year's 37 recipients, six each are from China, Iran, and Vietnam. Others are from Burma, Colombia, Egypt, Eritrea, Gambia, Iraq, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Syria, Tibet, Turkey, Tunisia, and Zimbabwe.

Background information

This year's Vietnamese Hellman/Hammett awardees include:

Nguyen Hoang Hai, alias Dieu Cay, 57, 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 two-and-a-half 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, 62, 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, 33, 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, the 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, 56, a Buddhist monk from Bac Lieu province in southern Vietnam, 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 humane 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, 61, a former lieutenant colonel and former deputy political commissar in the Vietnamese Peoples' Army, is currently awaiting 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 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 Duc Hoi, 54, 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 Duc 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.

Please click here for a full listing of all of this year's Hellman/Hammett awardees.

Correction October 15, 2009

One of this year's Hellman/Hammett awardees, blogger Dieu Cay, is currently serving a two-and-a-half year prison sentence; another two awardees, Pham Thanh Nghien and Tran Anh Kim, are in prison awaiting trial for their pro-democracy activities and writings.

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