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(New York, December 20, 2012) – Twelve writers, journalists, and activists from China have won the prestigious Hellman/Hammett award for 2012 in recognition of their efforts to promote free expression despite government persecution for their work, Human Rights Watch said today. A total of 41 writers from 19 countries have received 2012 Hellman/Hammett grants.

The awardees include ethnic Han, Tibetans, Mongolian, and Uyghurs. Winners of the grants include Gulmire Imin, Huuchinhuu Govruud, He Depu, Huang Qi, Memetjan Abdulla, Qi Chonghuai, Sun Wenguang, and Wang Lihong. Four Tibetan recipients cannot be named out of concern for their security. All 12 have been detained or imprisoned, with seven still in prison. All have suffered harassment and intimidation, including unlawful house arrests, restrictions on their movement, and repeated threats and interrogations by the police.

“The fact that over a quarter of the 2012 awardees are from China, and that so many have served such long prison sentences in harsh conditions, highlights the repressive environment in which these individuals work,” said Lawrence Moss, coordinator of the Hellman/Hammett grant program. “By challenging the government’s invisible red lines for expression, these brave journalists, writers, and activists have created greater space for free speech, but at a high price to themselves.”

While China has more than 500 million internet users and a variety of regional and national TV channels, newspapers, and magazines, the government tightly controls cyberspace and publications. The “Great Firewall” filters internet traffic in and out of China, while government censors patrol the internet and other media. This system of censorship deletes controversial opinions, manipulates public opinion, and intimidates or detains those who voice dissent or report on issues that the government would rather not let the public  know about.

The eight awardees from China publicly announced on December 19 are:

  • Memetjan Abdulla, a journalist who worked for the Uyghur-language website Salkin, was sentenced to life in prison for translating and posting on Salkin a call for a demonstration in Urumqi to protest the deaths of Uyghur factory workers.  
  • Gulmire Imin, a writer and colleague of Abdulla’s, was also sentenced to life in prison for her role as Salkin’s web moderator.
  • Qi Chonghuai, a journalist known for his work exposing corruption, is serving a 12-year sentence after he published photos of a luxurious government building constructed with taxpayer funds in a poor province.
  • Huang Qi, an activist and founder of China’s first domestic human rights website, spent three years in prison after he reported on the shoddy construction of schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and neglect of the victims.
  • He Depu, a veteran activist and writer, spent eight years in prison for publishing articles advocating  democracy and political reform and for his roles with the banned China Democratic Party (CDP).
  • Wang Lihong, a blogger and activist, served nine months in prison for organizing a protest in defense of three online activists on trial.
  • Huuchinhuu Govruud, a blogger, has since 1996 been repeatedly summoned, questioned, and detained many times for her activism, writing, and participation in the Southern Mongolian Democracy Alliance (SDMA).
  • Sun Wenguang, a writer and retired professor, continued to write and run in local elections after years in detention and imprisonment in the 1960s and 1970s for criticizing the government and has been placed under house arrest during campaign periods and at other sensitive periods.

The imprisonment and harassment of writers such as this year’s Hellman/Hammett awardees is designed to discourage others from engaging in similar expression, and helps reinforce the self-censorship that undermines freedom of expression in China, Human Rights Watch said.

The Hellman/Hammett grants are given annually to writers around the world who have been targets of persecution as a result of their work.  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 both questioned by US congressional committees about their political beliefs and affiliations during the aggressive anti-communist investigations inspired by Sen. 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 23 years, more than 750 writers from 92 countries have received Hellman/Hammett grants of up to US$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.

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