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Hellman/Hammett grants honour 42 writers for courage in facing political persecution

(Human Rights Watch/IFEX) - New York, August 4, 2010 - Human Rights Watch announced Hellman/Hammett grants today for 42 writers from 20 countries in recognition of their commitment to free expression and courage in the face of political persecution.

All are writers whose work and activism have been suppressed by their governments. Beyond their own experiences, they represent numerous other writers and journalists whose personal and professional lives have been disrupted as a result of repressive government policies that aim to control speech and publications.

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.

"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."

Governments have used military and presidential decrees, criminal charges, and libel and sedition laws to try to silence this year's Hellman/Hammett awardees. They have been harassed, assaulted, indicted, jailed on trumped-up charges, or tortured merely for providing information from nongovernmental sources. In addition to those who are directly targeted, many others are forced to practice self-censorship.

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 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.

Short biographies of those whose names can safely be made public follow.

Harn Lay (Burma) is a political cartoonist/satirist for The Irrawaddy, a leading opposition paper based in Thailand. Over the past decade, it has published more than 1,500 of Harn Lay's cartoons. His drawings and captions use humor to protest the brutality of Burma's military regime. Harn Lay fled Burma during the violent crackdown that followed the 1988 student-led demonstrations in which he participated to protest the harsh military rule. He lives in Thailand near the Burmese border.

Musa Mutaev (Chechnya) lives in exile in Norway. His short stories have been widely published in Chechen and Russian, and some have been translated into Norwegian. Mutaev and his family fled Chechnya for a displaced persons' camp in neighboring Ingushetia in 2001 after the Chechen government said his writings constituted a criminal offense. In January 2002, on a brief trip back to Chechnya, he was detained and beaten by federal troops. In September 2003, he was detained by Ingush police and released only after paying ransom. In January 2004, he was again detained by police and questioned about his writing and about his son who had recently moved to Norway. He was released after an acquaintance paid ransom. In March 2004, he was granted asylum in Norway.

Hu Sigen (China), poet, was a lecturer at the Beijing Language Institute when he participated in the Tiananmen Square protests. Three years later, in May 1992, he was arrested as he and friends were planning to distribute flyers to protest the 1989 crackdown and to memorialize the people who had died there. Hu was convicted of counter-revolutionary activity and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Released after 16 years, he is deprived of political rights for the remainder of his term.

Lü Gengsong (China) has written widely in overseas publications and on the internet criticizing the government and calling for reform. His book, Corruption in the Communist Party of China, was published in 2000 in Hong Kong. In August 2007, he was called to a Hangshou police station for a talk and never returned home. The security police followed up by searching his home and confiscating his computer. In January 2008, he was indicted on a charge of "subverting state power" and sentenced to four years in prison with an additional year of deprivation of political rights.

Teng Biao (China) is a human rights lawyer who writes political and social commentaries, fiction, and poetry. He was a guest scholar at Yale University in 2007. When he returned to Beijing, his passport was confiscated, and he was denied permission to leave China. A few months later, he was kidnapped and detained for a short time. Then his law license was revoked. In January 2009, he was suspended from teaching at the Law College of Beijing University.

Yang Tianshui (China), poet, novelist, and essayist, writes on a wide array of subjects and is particularly well-known for essays calling for democratic reform and accountability for human rights abuses. His work has been barred from publication in China but is seen on internet websites. He spent 10 years in prison, from 1990 to 2000, for voicing opposition to the Tiananmen Square crackdown. In 2005, he was detained without a warrant and convicted of "subverting state power" for posting articles critical of the government on the internet and for organizing political activities for the outlawed China Democracy Party. He is serving a 12-year prison term and is not scheduled for release until 2017.

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