(New York) – Five Iranians are among 35 writers to win the prestigious Hellman-Hammett award for courage and conviction in the face of political persecution. The other 30 winners come from 11 countries.
Security and judicial authorities in Iran have continued their crackdown on free expression despite hopes that Hassan Rouhani’s election as president in 2013 would bring greater rights protections. On September 30, 2014, security authorities arrested Mohammad Reza Pourshajari, one of the five Iranian recipients of the Hellman-Hammett award, only five weeks after his release from a four-year prison sentence. Iran is one of the world’s most prolific jailers of writers, according to Reporters Without Borders. As of July 2014, at least 65 journalists, bloggers, and social media activists were held in Iran’s prisons on various charges related to their speech or writings.
“These brave Iranians remind us of the vital role that journalists and writers play, regardless of the risks to their lives and careers, in exposing or speaking out against oppression,” said Emma Daly, communications director. “These prestigious Hellman-Hammett awards should both raise awareness of the winners’ contributions to upholding free speech, and increase pressure on their governments to cease repressing this fundamental human right.”
The Hellman-Hammett grants are awarded annually to writers from 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 such writers.
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 by Hellman in her will asked Human Rights Watch to devise a program to help writers targeted for expressing views that their governments oppose, for criticizing government officials or actions, or for writing about subjects of public interest that their governments did not want reported.
Over the past 25 years, more than 700 writers from 92 countries have received Hellman/Hammett grants. More than US$3 million has been granted to writers facing persecution. The program also makes small emergency grants to writers who must leave their country to escape persecution or who need urgent medical treatment after serving prison terms or enduring torture.
“The Hellman-Hammett grants are intended to assist writers who have suffered because their ideas or reporting offends those in power,” Daly said. “Many of those honored with these awards share a common aim with Human Rights Watch: to protect the vulnerable by shining a light on human rights abuses and building pressure for change.”
The five Iranian recipients of the Hellman-Hammett grants are:
Hassan Asadi Zeidabadi
Zeidabadi has contributed to Persian journals and websites on political and legal matters in Iran, attempting to promote press freedom, freedom of expression and human rights. Since 2007, Zeidabadi has been a member of the central committee of Advar-e Tahkim-e Vahdat (Office to Consolidate Unity’s Alumni Student Association), a reform-oriented student rights group that works to promote democracy and human rights in Iran. He’s founder and secretary of the group’s human rights committee. Zeidabadi has also acted as spokesperson of the Asian NGOs Network on National Human Rights Institutions (ANNI), which seeks to address human rights violations in Asia and in Australia. In Iran, following the disputed presidential election in 2009, he drew attention to cases of arbitrary arrest and detention of political activists and took a leading role in promoting the rights of women, students, and workers, leading to his own arrest and detention by security forces and intelligence authorities.
Authorities prosecuted Zeidabadi on charges that included “assembly and collusion against the national security,” “propaganda against the state,” and “insulting the president.” At the end of his trial before a revolutionary court, he received a five-year sentence that he is currently serving in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.
Ghaderi was an editor and reporter for the Islamic Republic News Agency, Iran’s official news agency, for 18 years, before he was dismissed for writing on his blog about street protests and other developments following the disputed 2009 election. In one entry, he interviewed Iranian homosexuals, drawing protest from the authorities, who arrested Ghaderi in July 2010. In January 2011, a revolutionary court sentenced him to four years in prison and a flogging of 60 lashes on charges of “propaganda against the regime,” “creating public anxiety,” and “spreading falsehoods.” The authorities released Ghaderi on July 14, 2014, after he served his prison sentence.
On Tuesday, November 25, the Committee to Protect Journalists will award Ghaderi the 2014 International Press Freedom award.
Ali Asghar Haghdar
Haghdar has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles, in the fields of thought, philosophy, and literary criticism since 1990. He eventually left Iran because its high level of official censorship prevented him from publishing his work.
Javadi was a journalist for several newspapers in Iran from 2006 to 2009, but he was forced to quit formal journalism amid the unrest and official crackdown that followed the 2009 presidential election. He took up writing again in 2011 on his blog. In October 2012, Ministry of Intelligence agents summoned Javadi for questioning about his blog writings and other activities, and later raided his home while he was absent, prompting him to leave Iran rather than face the risk of arrest. The authorities confiscated his possessions.
Mohammad Reza Pourshajari
Pourshajari, who is known also by his pen name Siamak Mehr, ran a blog called Iran’s Land Report. Security authorities arrested him in September 2010 and charged him with “insulting the Supreme Leader,” “acting against national security,” “insulting religious sanctities,” and “blasphemy,” solely on the basis of his writing and blogging activities. A revolutionary court subsequently sentenced Pourshajari to four years in prison. In jail, he suffered serious health problems, but prison authorities repeatedly denied him temporary release on medical furlough. Pourshajari completed his prison sentence on August 23, 2014, but the authorities have since prevented him from leaving the country.
Mitra Pourshajari, his daughter, told Human Rights Watch that security forces rearrested her father on September 30, 2014, in an area near to Iran’s border with Turkey, and initially held him for 14 days in solitary confinement at an Intelligence Ministry detention facility in the town of Orumiyeh. Mitra Pourshajari said that intelligence agents there interrogated her father for long periods while keeping him handcuffed and blindfolded, and pressured him psychologically. They later transferred him to Ward 8 of Rajai Shahr prison, which Iran’s notorious Revolutionary Guards control, where officials subjected him to further interrogation and threatened him, his daughter said. He is now detained in the Central Prison at Karaj.
Mitra Pourshajari told Human Rights Watch that for one month after her father’s arrest, while he was held in solitary confinement and under interrogations, she and other family members had no idea what had happened to him. She said that security and judiciary authorities have leveled an array of charges against Pourshajari, including “acting against the national security,” “propaganda against the state,” attempting to unlawfully exit the country, having contact with and providing information to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, Ahmed Shaheed, and having contact with “anti-revolutionary” and “Zionist organizations.”
On April 10, 2014, several UN rights experts, including Shaheed, called on the Iranian government to provide urgent medical care to both Pourshajari and imprisoned dissident cleric Kazemeini Boroujerdi, and secure their immediate release.