(New York) - Six Vietnamese writers are among a diverse group of 42 writers from 20 countries who have received the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award, which recognizes courage in the face of political persecution, Human Rights Watch announced today.
"Vietnamese writers are frequently harassed, or even jailed, for peacefully expressing their views," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, which administers the annual Hellman/Hammett awards. "By honoring courageous writers who have suffered political persecution, lost their jobs, or even sacrificed their freedom, we hope to bring international attention to voices that the Vietnamese government is trying to silence."
All of this year's awardees from Vietnam are writers whose work and activism have been suppressed by the government in its efforts to restrict free speech, control independent media, and limit open access and use of the internet.
The Vietnam government's actions against some of the awardees include disrupting their personal and professional lives, hacking their websites, cutting their telephone lines, and pressuring family members to urge the awardees to cease their activities. Some awardees have even been attacked and injured by officially sanctioned mobs, or denounced and humiliated in orchestrated public meetings. All have been arrested and detained, and four are currently in prison.
This year's awardees from Vietnam include Bui Thanh Hieu, who blogs under the name "Nguoi Buon Gio" (Wind Trader); Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, a blogger known on the internet as "Me Nam" (Mother Mushroom); Pham Van Troi, a human rights activist; Tran Duc Thach, a poet and military veteran; Vu Van Hung, a teacher; and Tran Khai Thanh Thuy, a novelist. Pham Van Troi, Tran Duc Thach, Vu Hung, and Tran Khai Thanh Thuy are currently in prison. (Detailed biographies follow below.)
The Hellman/Hammett grants 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 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 to create the assistance program for writers by the persecution that she and her longtime companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett, experienced during the 1950s anti-communist witch hunts in the US, when both were questioned by 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 government opposed, for criticizing government officials or actions, or for writing about things that their government did not want to come to light.
Over the past 21 years, more than 700 writers from 92 countries have received Hellman/Hammett grants of up to $10,000 each, 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.
"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, Hellman/Hammett grant coordinator. "Many of the writers share a common purpose with Human Rights Watch: to protect the human rights of vulnerable people by shining a light on abuses and building public pressure to promote lasting, positive change."
Short biographies of this year's Hellman/Hammett awardees from Vietnam:
Bui Thanh Hieu, who blogs under the name "Nguoi Buon Gio" (Wind Trader), is one of Vietnam's best known bloggers. His blog critiques the government's China policy, its approval of controversial bauxite mines, and its mishandling of Catholic prayer vigils. Hieu was arrested in August 2009 and held for more than a week on charges of "abusing democratic freedom." His house was searched and his laptop confiscated. In March 2010, Hieu was summoned and questioned by police for several days. He remains under surveillance and could be arrested and jailed at any time.
Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who blogs under the name "Me Nam" (Mother Mushroom), was detained and questioned in 2009 after being photographed wearing a T-shirt with the words "No Bauxite, No China: Spratly and Paracel Islands belong to Vietnam." In September 2009, she was taken from her home in the middle of the night by police and questioned about blog postings that criticized government policies on China and its disputed claims to the Spratly Islands. She was released after 10 days, but remains under surveillance by police, who continue to pressure her to shut down her blog. Her application for a passport was rejected.
Pham Van Troi, has used various pen names to write about human rights, democracy, land rights, religious freedom, and territorial disputes between China and Vietnam. He was an active member of the Committee for Human Rights in Vietnam, one of the only rights organizations to ever operate in Vietnam, until all of its leaders were arrested. He also wrote for the dissident bulletin To Quoc (Fatherland). Since 2006, he has been repeatedly harassed and summoned by police. He was arrested in September 2008 and charged with disseminating anti-government propaganda. In May 2009, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that Pham Van Troi had been wrongfully detained. Despite its conclusion, he was sentenced in October 2009 to four years in prison, followed by four years of house arrest.
Tran Duc Thach has written a novel, hundreds of poems, and articles and reports that condemn corruption, injustice, and human rights abuses. A veteran of the People's Liberation Army, he is a member of the Nghe An Writers Club. His 1988 novel, Doi Ban Tu (Two Companions in Prison), described the arbitrary nature of Vietnam's legal system and the inhuman conditions in Vietnamese prisons. Poems published under the title Dieu Chua Thay (Things Still Untold) speak about life without freedom and justice. Tran Duc Thach has been repeatedly harassed since 1975. In 1978, the pressure became so harsh that he set himself on fire and was badly burned. Since then, he has been arrested 10 times and brought to court four times, each time released for lack of evidence. In 2009, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that he had been wrongfully and arbitrarily detained after his last arrest in September 2008. Despite this he was sentenced to a three-year prison term, which will be followed by three years of house arrest.
Tran Khai Thanh Thuy, a prominent novelist and journalist, writes about farmers' land rights, human rights, corruption, and political pluralism. She is often critical of the government and the Vietnamese Communist Party. In October 2006, she was denounced in a show trial before hundreds of people. The next month she was fired from her job as a journalist and placed under house arrest. In April 2007, she was arrested at her home and held incommunicado in B14 prison in Hanoi for nine months. In 2008 and 2009, she endured repeated harassment from police and orchestrated neighborhood gangs, including at least 14 attacks by thugs throwing excrement and dead rodents at her house. Then in October 2009, she was arrested after trying to attend the trials of fellow dissidents and is serving a 42-month prison term. She has diabetes and tuberculosis but has been refused medical care while in prison.
Vu Van Hung is a teacher and contributor to the dissident bulletin To Quoc (Fatherland) who was dismissed from his job because of his involvement with democracy activists and dissident writers. He was detained for nine days in 2007, then placed under house arrest. He wrote Nine Days in Jail to tell the story of his interrogation. In April 2008, he was arrested and severely beaten for joining a peaceful demonstration against China when the Beijing Olympic torch passed through Ho Chi Minh City. He was arrested again in September 2008 for hanging a banner on a bridge calling for multi-party democracy and is currently serving a three-year prison term, which is to be followed by three years of house arrest. His 2009 trial took place just months after the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention determined that he was a victim of wrongful and arbitrary detention. He is thought to be imprisoned at Hoa Lo 2 Prison in Hanoi, where he is suffering from health problems as a result of severe beatings during interrogation and a one-month hunger strike.