Asians Dominate Free Speech Prize

Bloggers, writers and activists from Vietnam, Burma, and China dominate Hellman/Hammett Awards.

huynh-family-305 From the left, Huynh Ngoc Tuan, his daughter Huynh Thuc Vy, and son Huynh Trong Hieu.

Five Vietnamese bloggers, a prominent Burmese poet and 12 writers, journalists, and activists from China are among 41 writers from 19 countries chosen to receive the 2012 Hellman/Hammett grants for their commitment to free expression and their courage in the face of persecution.

The cash grants, named for the American playwright Lillian Hellman and her longtime companion, the novelist Dashiell Hammett, are given annually to writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution or human rights abuses.

The Vietnamese bloggers who won the prestigious awards reflect the diversity of sectors in Vietnamese society whose critical and concerned voices the one-party Communist government in Hanoi wishes to silence, said Human Rights Watch, which administers the annual Hellman/Hammett awards.

The bloggers are advocate of religious freedom Nguyen Huu Vinh (who blogs as J.B. Nguyen Huu Vinh); rights defender Pham Minh Hoang (who blogs as Phan Kien Quoc); freelance journalist Vu Quoc Tu (known as Uyen Vu); novelist Huynh Ngoc Tuan; and the youthful political, social commentator Huynh Thuc Vy.

All five have been persecuted for their writings.

The Vietnamese authorities have prevented at least one family member of the winners from leaving the country to collect the award on their behalf.

Blogger Huynh Trong Hieu was prohibited on Dec. 16 from leaving Vietnam for the United States to receive awards on behalf of his father, Huynh Ngoc Tuan, and his sister, Huynh Thuc Vy, and his passport was confiscated, Human Rights Watch said.

Two other 2012 Hellman/Hammett recipients, bloggers Nguyen Huu Vinh and Vu Quoc Tu, cannot travel to collect their awards.

Nguyen Huu Vinh was prohibited from leaving the country in August 2012 and Vu Quoc Tu in May 2010.

Blogger Pham Minh Hoang is serving a three-year probation term, which restricts his movement within his residential ward.

“Like other Vietnamese exercising their right to free expression, many of the country’s growing corps of bloggers are increasingly threatened, assaulted, or even jailed for peacefully expressing their views,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

"By recognizing these five brave men and women, who have already suffered much and face on-going threats to their basic rights, we are honored to amplify the voices the ruling Vietnamese Communist Party wants to prevent from participating in public discussions of Vietnam’s many social and political problems,” he said.

Suppressing freedom

Human Rights Watch said that the Vietnamese government systematically suppresses freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and persecutes those who question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule.

Writers and bloggers often face lengthy prison terms imposed by “people’s courts,” temporary police detention and harsh interrogation, intrusive surveillance by various authorities, restrictions on domestic travel and prohibitions on leaving the country, beatings by security officials and anonymous thugs, fines, and denial of opportunities for livelihood, the rights group said.

Burma's award recipient was Zaw Thet Htwe, a prominent poet, screenwriter, editor, journalist, and activist.

He has been involved in social activism, including taking part in 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations and a student political party, and in raising funds for victims of HIV/AIDS and Cyclone Nargis and alms for monks taking part in the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

Zaw Thet Htwe was arrested in 2003 and charged with treason for his collaboration on a sports journal that employed many former Burmese political prisoners.

He was arrested again in 2008 and sentenced to 11 years in prison after being found guilty of violating Burma’s Electronic Transactions Act for “disaffection toward state and government” in his use of the Internet to publish his work.

He was released in January and is deeply involved in current efforts to improve media freedom.

Among the other award winners were 12 writers, journalists, and activists from China, including ethnic Hans, Tibetans, Mongolians, and Uyghurs who 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, Human Rights Watch said.


Among the winners was Memetjan Abdulla, a journalist who worked for the Uyghur-language website Salkin and was sentenced to life in prison for translating and posting on Salkin a call for a demonstration in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, home to the ethnic Uyghur minority.

The demonstration was called to protest the deaths of Uyghur factory workers.

Other winners from China were:

* Gulmire Imin, a writer and colleague of Abdulla’s, who 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, who 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, who spent three years in prison after he reported on the shoddy construction of schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and on neglect of the victims.

* He Depu, a veteran activist and writer, who spent eight years in prison for publishing articles advocating democracy and political reform and for his roles in the banned China Democratic Party (CDP).

* Wang Lihong, a blogger and activist, who served nine months in prison for organizing a protest in defense of three online activists on trial.

* Huuchinhuu Govruud, a blogger, who since 1996 has been repeatedly summoned, questioned, and detained  for her activism, writing, and participation in the Southern Mongolian Democracy Alliance (SDMA).

* Sun Wenguang, a writer and retired professor, who has 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.


Four Tibetan recipients cannot be named out of concern for their security.

“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.”

Reported by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.


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