(Bangkok) – Eight Vietnamese writers are among a diverse group of 48 writers from 24 countries who have received the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award recognizing writers who demonstrate courage and conviction in the face of political persecution, Human Rights Watch said today.
“Vietnamese writers are frequently threatened, assaulted, 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 these brave writers, who have suffered so much, are persecuted, fired, and even imprisoned, we’re giving an international platform to those the Vietnamese government wants to silence.”
This year’s Vietnamese award-winners have all seen their writing and activism suppressed by the government in an attempt to restrict free speech, control independent media, and limit open access and use of the internet.
The grant winners have all been arrested and detained, now or in the past. Some have been attacked and injured by officially sanctioned mobs, or denounced and humiliated in orchestrated public meetings. Every single one has been targeted by government actions that disrupted their personal and professional lives, ranging from cutting their telephone lines and restricting their movements to pressuring family members to urge them to cease their activities.
The award winners include Cu Huy Ha Vu, a legal advocate; Ho Thi Bich Khuong, a human rights activist; Le Tran Luat, a former lawyer; Nguyen Bac Truyen, a former political prisoner; Nguyen Xuan Nghia, a free speech activist; Phan Thanh Hai, a legal activist; Ta Phong Tan, a blogger; and Vi Duc Hoi, a former party official.
Cu Huy Ha Vu, Nguyen Xuan Nghia, and Vi Duc Hoi are currently in prison. Ho Thi Bich Khuong was arrested on January 15, 2011, on an unknown charge and remains in detention. Phan Thanh Hai has been detained since October 18 for allegedly conducting propaganda against the state. Ta Phong Tan was arrested on September 5 on an unknown charge. Nguyen Bac Truyen, after serving 42 months in prison, is living under a post-release order that severely restricts his freedom of movement. Only Le Tran Luat is not in detention, but he faces intrusive police surveillance every day. (Detailed biographies follow below.)
“I passionately hope that freedom and democracy will come to my people so that everybody can enjoy human rights like in other progressive countries,” Ho Thi Bich Khuong said. “In this struggle, your support is not only a source of encouragement, but also a contribution to the nation and the people of Vietnam.”
The Hellman-Hammett grants are given annually to writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution or human rights abuses. A distinguished selection committee awards the cash grants to honor and assist writers whose work and activities have been suppressed by repressive government policies.
The grants are named for the American playwright Lillian Hellman and her longtime companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett. Both were questioned by US congressional committees about their political beliefs and affiliations during the aggressive anti-communist investigations inspired by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Hellman suffered professionally and had trouble finding work. Hammett spent time in prison.
In 1989, the trustees appointed in Hellman’s will 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 subjects that their governments did not want reported.
Over the past 22 years, more than 700 writers from 92 countries have received Hellman/Hammett grants. Over the years, more than $3 million has been granted to writers facing persecution. 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 have suffered because they published information or expressed ideas that criticize policy or offend people in power,” said Lawrence Moss, coordinator of the Hellman/Hammett grant program. “Many of the writers honored by these grants share a common purpose with Human Rights Watch: to protect the rights of vulnerable people by shining a light on abuses and building pressure for change.”
Biographies of 2011 Hellman/Hammett awardees from Vietnam:
Dr. Cu Huy Ha Vu, 54, is an artist with a doctorate in law from the Sorbonne. He comes from an elite family that includes senior members of the Vietnamese Communist Party and former revolutionaries. Vu is most famous for his two lawsuits against Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung: the first for signing Decision 167 in November 2007, which allowed controversial bauxite mining operations in Vietnam's Central Highlands and the second for signing Decree 136 in 2006, which prohibits class-action petitions. In addition, Vu is known for his public criticism of high-ranking government officials, including Lt. Gen. Vu Hai Trieu of the Public Security Ministry, for allegedly authorizing cyber-attacks against politically sensitive websites disapproved of by the government, and the communist party general secretary of Ho Chi Minh City, Le Thanh Hai, for allegedly confiscating land from relatives of martyred soldiers. Vu was arrested in November. He was tried on April 4 for violating article 88 of the penal code, which prohibits conducting propaganda against the state, and sentenced to seven years in prison.
Ho Thi Bich Khuong, 44, is among an emerging and rapidly expanding group of farmers who use the Internet to defend the rights of landless poor people and to promote freedom of expression and freedom of association. She publishes detailed accounts of the repression and harassment she and her family have confronted, and writes about the sufferings of other poor peasants and of human rights activists. In April 2007 she was arrested in an Internet café in Nghe An province and sentenced to two years in prison for “abusing democratic freedoms to infringe upon the interests of the state,” under article 258 of the penal code. Her memoir of her time in prison was published in serialized form in July and August 2009 by Nguoi Viet Online, one of the most influential Vietnamese-American newspapers in Orange County, California. On January 15, Ho Thi Bich Khuong was arrested again in Nghe An and has since been held in detention.
Le Tran Luat, 41, is a former lawyer who has defended numerous politically sensitive cases in Vietnam. He is also a prolific blogger who writes about legal reform and human rights issues. Authorities forced his law practice, the Legal Right Firm, to close in 2009. Le Tran Luat has suffered daily harassment from the police since 2008 for agreeing to take on sensitive cases, such as defending democracy activists Truong Minh Duc, Pham Ba Hai, and Pham Van Troi. Since the closure of his law firm, Le Tran Luat has not been able to secure employment because police have pressured potential employers not to hire him. Le Tran Luat’s writing analyzes the weaknesses of the legal system in Vietnam and strongly defends democracy activists. His blog was hacked and destroyed by unknown cyber assailants in November.
Nguyen Bac Truyen, 43, is a former political prisoner. His contributions to overseas news websites describing repression, injustice, and human rights violations committed by the government led to his arrest in November 2006 under article 88 of the penal code for propaganda against the state. The authorities sentenced him to three-and-a-half years in prison. Since being released in May 2010, he has been under probation/house arrest and faced constant harassment. Nguyen Bac Truyen’s writings since his imprisonment are focused on his fellow political prisoners and the difficulties and discrimination that former political prisoners face. He has been an outspoken member of the Vietnamese Political and Religious Prisoners Fellowship Association, which provides support to prisoners and their families.
Nguyen Xuan Nghia, 62, is a journalist, novelist, poet, and editorial board member of the underground democracy bulletin, To Quoc (Fatherland). As a journalist, he wrote for the main government papers until 2003, when the government banned him because of his pro-democracy activities. A leader of the banned pro-democracy group Bloc 8406, Nguyen Xuan Nghia was arrested in September 2008 and charged with conducting anti-government propaganda under penal code article 88. On October 8, 2009, after more than a year in pretrial detention, he was sentenced to six years in prison and then four years under house arrest by the People’s Court of Hai Phong.
Phan Thanh Hai, 42, is a dissident writer who blogsunder the pen name “Anhbasg.” A founding member of the Club for Free Journalists, Phan Thanh Hai’s writings aim to promote government transparency, freedom of expression, and freedom of association. After participating in a protest in Ho Chi Minh City against the Beijing Olympics in December 2007, police put Phan Thanh Hai under intrusive surveillance, and detained and interrogated him many times. Although Phan Thanh Hai finished his law study and has fulfilled all requirements, his application to become a practicing lawyer was turned down by the Ho Chi Minh City Bar Association because of his involvement in the protest and his Internet blogging activities. He has also not been able to secure any regular employment due to police harassment. On October 18, police arrested Phan Thanh Hai in Ho Chi Minh City for allegedly conducting propaganda against the state under article 88 of the penal code. He remains in detention.
Ta Phong Tan, 43, is a former police officer and a former communist party member. She began her writing career as a freelance journalist in 2004. Her articles appeared in many mainstream newspapers including Tuoi Tre (Youth), Nguoi Lao Dong (Laborer), Vietnam Net, Phap Luat TP Ho Chi Minh (Ho Chi Minh City Law), Thanh Tra (inspectorate), Can Tho, and Binh Duong. Since March 2006, dozens of her articles have been published on the website of BBC’s Vietnamese service. This eventually prompted the Communist Party of Vietnam to revoke her membership. Since launching her blog “Justice & Truth” (Cong ly & Su that) in November 2006, she has become one of the most prolific bloggers in Vietnam. She has authored more than 700 articles about social issues, including the mistreatment of children, official corruption, unfair taxation of poor people, and peasant grievances connected to illegal land confiscations by local officials. In addition, using her former knowledge and experience of police work, she provides insightful observations about widespread abuse of power by the police in Vietnam. As a result of her writing, police have continually harassed Ta Phong Tan. Since 2008, she has been detained and interrogated on numerous occasions about her activities, her associates, and the contents of her blog. Ta Phong Tan was arrested on September 5, and her whereabouts are unknown.
Vi Duc Hoi, 55, is a writer and blogger from the remote province of Lang Son in northern Vietnam, near the China border. He is an ethnic Tay, the largest minority group in Vietnam. Vi Duc Hoi quietly started supporting calls for respect of human rights and greater democracy in 2006, while still holding important positions in the Communist Party of Vietnam and government apparatus in Lang Son. He was the head of the Committee for Propaganda and a member of the Party’s Standing Committee of Huu Lung district. After his views became known, he was expelled from the party, subject to orchestrated public denunciation sessions, and detained and interrogated. His essays on democracy, pluralism, and human rights and his memoir, Facing Reality, My Path to Joining the Democratic Movement (Doi Mat: Duong di den voi phong trao dan chu), have been widely circulated on the Internet. Vi Duc Hoi was arrested in October 2010 and charged with conducting propaganda against the state under article 88 of the penal code. He was convicted to eight years of imprisonment in January, reduced on appeal in April to five years and then three years on probation.
Quotes from Vietnamese Hellman Hammett Awardees for 2011
“I have lived my life not to dishonor those who place their full belief in me in the struggle for justice, democracy and human rights in Vietnam.”
Legal Activist Cu Huy Ha Vu
“I do not have any motive other than the desire to defend what is right and defend my people. Thus I have decided to devote the remainder of my life to doing something, no matter how trivial, so that when I leave this life, I will have fewer regrets.”
Democracy Activist Vi Duc Hoi
“We need to fight for democracy and human rights in Vietnam because they are crucial for the development of our country.”
Former Political Prisoner Nguyen Bac Truyen
“Somewhere from the shadow of the green trees, non-violent activists, students and outstanding citizens of the country are fighting for freedom, democracy and human rights for their homeland, despite being brutally persecuted.”
Writer and Democracy Activist Nguyen Xuan Nghia
“I am a free journalist. I write about what I see and hear. I comment on social issues as I understand them. I expose the victimization of people like myself and my friends by the State of Vietnam. I defend people without power who suffer injustice.”
Former Police Officer and Blogger Ta Phong Tan
“The most dangerous thing is that we are deprived of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is not only a basic right. It is also a tool and a means for us to defend other rights.”
Lawyer and Blogger Le Tran Luat
“Blogging is an escape route for those whose ideas and actions are imprisoned. It allows one to express resistance against injustice and violence. Blogging is where an individual can express his/her desire for freedom.”
Blogger Phan Thanh Hai (a.k.a. Anhbasg)
“I passionately hope that freedom and democracy will come to my people so that everybody can enjoy human rights like in other progressive countries. In this struggle, your support is not only a source of encouragement, but also a contribution to the nation and the people of Vietnam.”
Human Rights Activist Ho Thi Bich Khuong