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Hellman/Hammett grants awarded to 28 writers from 13 countries

(HRW/IFEX) - The following is a 29 July 2003 Human Rights Watch press release:

Besieged Writers Receive Awards
Hellman/Hammett Grants to 28 Writers from 13 Countries

(New York, July 29, 2003) - A diverse group of 28 writers from 13 countries are receiving Hellman/Hammett grants in recognition of their courage in the face of political persecution, Human Rights Watch said today.

Thirteen of the 28 grant recipients have asked Human Rights Watch not to release their names for fear of further reprisals, a larger proportion than in previous years. Ten recipients have fled to exile.

The Hellman/Hammett grants are given annually to writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution. The grant program began in 1989 when executors of the estate of American playwright Lillian Hellman asked Human Rights Watch to design a program in her name and that of her long-time companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett. The Hellman/Hammett funds provide assistance to writers in financial need as a result of expressing their views.

This year's grants totaled $170,000. Recipients from Belarus, China, Eritrea, Liberia, Nepal, Ukraine, and Vietnam have asked to remain anonymous because of the dangerous circumstances in which they are working.

In many countries, governments use military and presidential decrees and criminal libel and sedition laws to silence critics, often on fabricated charges. Writers and journalists are threatened, harassed, assaulted, indicted, jailed, 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.

The Hellman/Hammett grants are announced each spring. In the thirteen previous years of the program, more than 400 writers received grants totaling well over one million dollars. The Hellman/Hammett program also makes small emergency grants from time to time throughout the year to writers who have an urgent need to leave their country, who need immediate medical treatment arising from prison conditions or torture, or who find themselves in desperate financial circumstances as a result of political persecution.

The following are short biographies of the writers who gave permission to release news of their receipt of a Hellman/Hammett grant.

Mark Grigorian (Armenia), journalist, suffered serious wounds in October 2002 when an unknown assailant threw a hand grenade at his feet. Miraculously he survived, but pieces of shrapnel remain lodged throughout his body. It is not certain which of Mr. Grigorian's journalistic investigations prompted the attack. At the time, he was working on a report about the 1999 shooting in the Armenian Parliament that left eight politicians including the Prime Minister dead. In December 2002, a senior television official due to be called as a witness in the Parliament case was murdered. These events and other incidents caused Mr. Grigorian to flee to London where he is now working on Armenia and the Caucasus at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

Khaing Mar Kyaw Zaw (Burma), poet, journalist, and teacher, is an ethnic Karen, one of Burma's largest minority populations. The Karen have been in opposition to the Burmese government from almost from the first day that Burma won independence from Great Britain. Khaing Mar's father was a member of the Karen National Union (KNU), the Karen resistance organization. When Khaing Mar was eleven months old, she went to live with an aunt and did not see her mother, brothers and sisters for the next twenty years, by which time her father had been killed. In 1992, Khaing Mar joined with the Karen opposition movement. First she taught school and joined the KNU general secretary's office. Now she works for the Karen Women's Organization and is the Burmese language editor for the Karen Information Center, writing news and feature articles. There is no freedom of expression in Burma. Any writing or speech that is interpreted as critical to the military regime is censored. Often the writer is jailed, tortured, or executed. Khaing Mar has not been arrested or imprisoned, but she feared continuing to write while living in Burma. She now lives in Thailand along the border with Burma.

Njaru Philip (Cameroon), journalist, has been targeted by state authorities because of articles he wrote about corruption and human rights violations by government officials. On election day October 12, 1997, he was arrested at a polling station, accused of spying, threatened, and interrogated. Soon after being released, he was accosted and beaten by political thugs employed by a local politician and the police commissioner. They left him unconscious with a fractured jaw and permanent hearing damage. On February 20, 1998, the same police commissioner arrested Njaru Philip while he was consulting a medical doctor in the government hospital. He was questioned and tortured about an article he had written the previous December. In June 2001, Philip Njaru was attacked by twenty policemen in Kombi town in southwest province, kicked and beaten with military belts and gun butts on the charge that he had refused to show the police his national identity card.

Nji Renatus Che (Cameroon), journalist. His house was burned down and he and his family members were harassed after he wrote an article for a national daily paper, The Mail, in which he said that Sharia (Islamic law) in Nigeria abuses human rights. The Journalism Club of Buea hired lawyers to follow the case in court, but the Minister of Justice, a Muslim, ordered the court to dismiss the matter.

Liao Yiwu (China), poet, novelist, film scriptwriter, has been arrested repeatedly over the past fourteen years. He was first arrested in March 1990 while working on a movie about the government's persecution of persons involved in the June 4th Movement. Over the next four years, he was frequently confined to detention centers and prisons where he was subjected to abusive treatment, once being handcuffed for twenty-three consecutive days causing abscesses in his armpits. He tried to commit suicide twice. In October 1995, police searched his home, confiscated his writings, and held him under house arrest for twenty days. In September 1998, he was arrested because he compiled The Underground Poems of the Seventies in China. The book's publishers were dismissed from their posts. In January 2001, the publisher of his latest book, Voice From the Lowest Rung of the Society, was ordered to recall copies that were already in the stores. Voice From the Lowest Rung of the Society was then published in Taiwan. In December 2002, Liao Yiwu was detained again after he posted his writings on the Internet and signed a petition to the 16th Party Congress.

Liu Binyan (China), journalist, whose work has criticized Chinese Communist Party officials for corruption, repression of press freedom, and suppression of people's basic rights. In 1957, the government labeled Liu Binyan an "extreme rightist," sent him to work in the "reform through labor" program, and prohibited him from writing for twenty years. From 1978 to 1988, he was a special correspondent for the People's Daily newspaper. In 1989, he came to the United States on a Nieman Fellowship and was barred from returning to China. In exile, he continued to write about current developments in China for numerous newspapers and magazines. His most recent book in English is A Higher Kind of Loyalty: A Memoir. Liu Binyan also held research positions and fellowships at various universities. Most recently he has been a commentator for Radio Free Asia. In 2002, he was diagnosed with cancer. He reports that treatments are going well and that he is currently working on a book about "how the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese people have changed in the past fifty years."

Wang Lixiong (China) writes political fiction and essays. He first came to the censors' attention with the publication of Drifting, an account of his solitary voyage down the Yellow River in 1984. The trip, which took him to a Tibetan area, awakened his interest in Tibetan issues. Subsequently, he made ten trips to Tibet and wrote Sky Burial - The Fate of Tibet, a comprehensive and objective report on Tibet's independence movement. In 1999, while traveling in predominantly Muslim Xinjiang in northwest China, Wang Lixiong was accused of leaking state secrets and detained for more than a month. On release, he continued writing and published Melting Power - Ascension from the Ranks, a book about political reform. Since then, he has been under heavy surveillance and his writing has been banned. He held a job at Friends of Nature, a Chinese environmental NGO, but in February 2003, government officials warned Friends of Nature that his continued employment put its registration at risk, and he was dismissed.

Khaled Abdu (Eritrea) was co-founder and former editor in chief of Admas, one of the first independent newspapers in Eritrea. In 2000, as the climate for dissent in Eritrea was worsening, his brother disappeared in the port city of Massawa. Mr. Abdu feared he might be next and fled to Saudi Arabia. While in exile, he continued writing and kept a version of Admas going online. In September 2001, when the Eritrean government shut down all non-state print media, he realized that a safe return to Eritrea was not possible. In July 2003, he found his way to The Netherlands where he is applying for political asylum.

Aaron Berhane (Eritrea) was a writer and editor at Setit, a newspaper that at one time had the largest circulation in the country. The paper covered Eritrea's social problems such as poverty, prostitution, and lack of facilities to care for handicapped war veterans. When the government shut down Setit and other papers in the fall of 2001, many journalists working at independent media outlets were arrested, among them Mr. Berhane's brother and cousin. Mr. Berhane went into hiding. In January 2002, he fled to Kenya and then to Canada where he received political asylum.

Lubaba Said (Ethiopia), the former editor-in-chief of the newspaper Tarik, was tried on charges of violating the "prevention of propaganda for war" provision of the Ethiopian Press Law. Ms. Said was found guilty of "fabricating news that could have a negative psychological effect on members of the armed forces and disturb the minds of the people." In April 2002, she was sentenced to one year in prison. The charges related to two Tarik articles published in August 1996 concerning alleged defections from the Ethiopian armed forces.

Ismail Khoi (Iran), poet and essayist, was one of the first university lecturers suspended when the government of Iran instituted a cleansing and rebuilding of Iranian universities after the 1979 revolution. When his colleague Saeed Soltanpoor was executed, Mr. Khoi realized that his own life was at risk. He spent two years in hiding and then fled to England. Over the past decade he has chronicled life in exile and courageously spoken out for freedom of speech and in defense of Salman Rushdie, Saidi-Sirjani, and Taslima Nasrin. The Iranian government has banned his books and prohibits even mention of his name in the country's mass media.

Tom Kamara (Liberia), journalist and editor, founded the New Democrat in 1993 at the height of Liberia's civil war with financial assistance from friends in The Netherlands. The newspaper grew steadily; its circulation doubled from 7,000 to 14,000 and it began publishing two editions weekly instead of one. By 1994, it was Liberia's most read paper. Its coverage centered on democracy, human rights, and transparency in government. In protest against the paper's reporting, its offices were frequently attacked. The staff numbered thirty, half of them guards. In 1996, the offices of the New Democrat were burned. In November 1997, the government of President Charles Taylor denied the New Democrat permission to resume publishing. Local and international pressure forced the government to reverse the decision, and in May 1998 the paper was back in print. The staff continued to be threatened, arrested, and interrogated. Potential advertisers were warned not to do business with the paper. In July 2000, the government effectively closed the paper by barring all advertising in its pages. Meanwhile, after the 1997 elections, threats to Mr. Kamara's life had caused him to flee to The Netherlands, but he continued writing for the New Democrat from there until the paper was closed.

Chris Abani (Nigeria), poet and novelist, was arrested in 1985 and again in 1987 when plots of his novels were said to be plans for attempts to overthrow the government. He spent six months in prison in 1985. In 1987, he was held in Kiri-Kiri Maximum Security Prison for a year and tortured. On his release, Mr. Abani entered Imo State University. Inspired by Wole Soyinka's use of theater as protest, Mr. Abani formed a theater group that wrote and performed anti-government sketches. In 1990, he wrote a play, Song of the Broken Flute, for the University's commencement exercises which the military head of state and military governor were scheduled to attend. The play, a series of monologues that decried government corruption and its effects on the people, landed him back in prison on treason charges. Released after 18 months, he graduated from Imo State University and joined the national service. Several attempts on his life while in boot camp prompted him to flee to England. He lived there quietly until publication of his prison memoir in 1997, when he began speaking out. As a result, the Nigerian government applied to have him extradited to stand trial for treason again. In December 1999, following the doorstep murder of his next-door neighbor, the only other Nigerian in the building, Mr. Abani left England for the United States. He now lives in California and is a doctoral student in literature at the University of Southern California.

Kawther Salam (Palestine), reporter, has worked with Israeli peace groups and foreign journalists to document the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territories since September 2000. She wrote a weekly diary of her experiences for the Gush Shalom website and collaborated on three films for Israeli TV. She reported on human rights abuses by Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), named particular soldiers, and filed legal complaints against them. Ms. Salam also offended local Islamists by writing articles that criticized Islamic fundamentalism, condemned suicide bombing, and exposed municipal corruption by the Palestinian Authority in Hebron. She has been physically assaulted numerous times and threatened because she refused to submit to the local conservative dress code. As threats from the IDF, Israeli settlers, and Islamist extremists multiplied, she fled the region and received asylum in Austria in December 2002.

Dr. Chee Soon Juan (Singapore), professor and author, is secretary-general of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party. After taking part in by-elections in 1992, he was dismissed from the National University of Singapore where he taught. He was nearly bankrupted by fines and court costs for contesting the dismissal. Employers in the private sector have been discouraged from hiring him. His books focus on the government's anti-free speech policies. Most of them are not allowed to be sold in Singapore, and he has been prosecuted for hawking them on the streets. He was found guilty of defaming the Prime Minister and Senior Minister Lee Kwan Yew after he raised questions about secret government loans to former Indonesian President Suharto. In October 2002, Dr Chee was sentenced to five weeks in prison when he refused to pay a fine for holding a peaceful May Day rally without a permit. He had applied for the requisite permit and had been denied on grounds that it posed potential law and order problems.

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Human Rights Watch is dedicated to protecting the human rights of people around the world. We stand with victims and activists to prevent discrimination, to uphold political freedom, to protect people from inhumane conduct in wartime, and to bring offenders to justice. We investigate and expose human rights violations and hold abusers accountable. We challenge governments and those holding power to end abusive practices and respect international human rights law. We enlist the public and the international community to support the cause of human rights for all.

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