This week, Human Rights Watch awarded forty-eight writers from 24 countries 2011 Hellman/Hammett grants for their commitment to free expression and their courage in the face of persecution. Included in the diverse group are 28 winners from Asia, including eight from Vietnam. This year’s Vietnamese award-winners have all seen their writing and activism suppressed by the government in an attempt to restrict free speech, control independent media, and limit open access and use of the internet.
“Vietnamese writers are frequently threatened, assaulted, or even jailed for peacefully expressing their views,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “By honoring these brave writers, who have suffered so much, are persecuted, fired, and even imprisoned, we’re giving an international platform to those the Vietnamese government wants to silence.”
In the words of writer and democracy activist Nguyen Xuan Nghia, one of the 2011 award recipients: “Somewhere from the shadow of the green trees, non-violent activists, students and outstanding citizens of the country are fighting for freedom, democracy and human rights for their homeland, despite being brutally persecuted.”
All of the 48 Hellman/Hammett award-winners have faced persecution for their work, generally by government authorities seeking to prevent them from publishing information and opinions. Those honored include journalists, bloggers, novelists, poets, and playwrights, as well as a singer-songwriter and a cartoonist. They also represent numerous other writers worldwide whose personal and professional lives are disrupted by repressive policies to control speech and publications.
Free expression is a central human right, enshrined in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which declares that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” On July 21, 2011, the Human Rights Committee, the expert body established under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, reiterated the central importance of freedom of opinion and expression, stating that these freedoms “are indispensable conditions for the full development of the person. They are essential for any society. They constitute the foundation stone for every free and democratic society.”
The Hellman-Hammett grants are given annually to writers 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 writers whose work and activities have been suppressed by repressive government policies.
The award winners from Vietnam include Cu Huy Ha Vu, a legal advocate; Ho Thi Bich Khuong, a human rights activist; Le Tran Luat, a former lawyer; Nguyen Bac Truyen, a former political prisoner; Nguyen Xuan Nghia, a free speech activist; Phan Thanh Hai, a legal activist; Ta Phong Tan, a blogger; and Vi Duc Hoi, a former party official. You can view biographies of all of the award winners here.
Cu Huy Ha Vu, Nguyen Xuan Nghia, and Vi Duc Hoi are currently in prison. Ho Thi Bich Khuong was arrested on January 15, 2011, on an unknown charge and remains .in detention. Phan Thanh Hai has been detained since October 18 for allegedly conducting propaganda against the state. Ta Phong Tan was arrested on September 5 on an unknown charge. Nguyen Bac Truyen, after serving 42 months in prison, is living under a post-release order that severely restricts his freedom of movement. Only Le Tran Luat is not in detention, but he faces intrusive police surveillance every day.
A former lawyer who has defended numerous politically sensitive cases in Vietnam, Le Tran Luat is also a prolific blogger who writes about legal reform and human rights issues. Authorities forced his law practice, the Legal Right Firm, to close in 2009. Le Tran Luat, 41, has suffered daily harassment from the police since 2008 for agreeing to take on sensitive cases, such as defending democracy activists Truong Minh Duc, Pham Ba Hai, and Pham Van Troi. Since the closure of his law firm, Le Tran Luat has not been able to secure employment because police have pressured potential employers not to hire him. Le Tran Luat’s writing analyzes the weaknesses of the legal system in Vietnam and strongly defends democracy activists. His blog was hacked and destroyed by unknown cyber assailants in November.
He defends the importance of self-expression: “The most dangerous thing is that we are deprived of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression is not only a basic right. It is also a tool and a means for us to defend other rights.”
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 Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. Hellman suffered professionally and had trouble finding work. Hammett spent time in prison.
“The Hellman/Hammett grants help writers who have suffered because they published information or expressed ideas that criticize or offend people in power,” said Lawrence Moss, coordinator of the Hellman/Hammett grant program at Human Rights Watch. “Many of the writers honored by these grants share a common purpose with Human Rights Watch: to protect the rights of vulnerable people by shining a light on abuses and building pressure for change.”
Ho Thi Bich Khuong, one of a group of farmers who use the Internet to defend the rights of landless poor people and to promote freedom of expression and freedom of association said “I passionately hope that freedom and democracy will come to my people so that everybody can enjoy human rights like in other progressive countries. In this struggle, your support is not only a source of encouragement, but also a contribution to the nation and the people of Vietnam.”