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Five Iranian writers win awards

New York, July 14, 1999 (Human Rights Watch) -- African writers received the lion's share of this year's Hellman/Hammett grants, a clear indication of the hazards confronted by those in the writing profession on the African continent.

Of the thirty-two grant recipients, fourteen come from African countries, five hail from Iran (see below, in red) , and four from Vietnam. The Hellman/Hammett grants are given annually by Human Rights Watch to writers around the world who have been targets of political persecution.

The grant program began in 1989 when the estates of American authors Lillian Hellman and Dashiel Hammett asked Human Rights Watch to design a program for writers in financial need as a result of expressing their views.

This year's grants totaled $170,000. In many countries, writers are threatened, harassed, assaulted, or thrown into jail merely for providing information from non-governmental sources. Governments often use military and presidential decrees, criminal libel, and colonial-era sedition laws to silence critics. As a result many journalists and writers are forced to practice self-censorship.

Short biographies of the 1999 recipients follow.

Akinwumi Adesokan (Nigeria), novelist, essayist, and journalist. Mr. Adesokan and colleagues from The News were detained for a week in 1993. Thereafter, he worked with the constant threat of arrest. In November 1997 on his return to Lagos from writing fellowships abroad, he was detained, interrogated, and held incommunicado for two months. His manuscripts, computer, and money were confiscated. Memories of incarceration and the political climate around General Abacha's bid for re-election made it hard to write. After Abacha's death in the summer of 1998, Mr. Adesokan was able to return to UCLA where he spent the year working on a second novel.

Lanre Arogundade (Nigeria), journalist, was first targeted in 1984 when as a student leader, he wrote columns opposing the military government's attempts to restrict academic inquiry and raise university fees. As a result, he was abducted and imprisoned, and then, in response to student protests, released. Harassment continued, usually linked to his attendance at international conferences or when he spoke up for press freedom in Nigeria. In the past year Mr. Arogundade was arrested three times on unsupported allegations ranging from gun running to association with illegal organizations. He was arrested a fourth time in April and charged with murder, a charge that he and his supporters maintain is motivated by political efforts to undermine the independent media. He was held for twenty-three days and then released on bail while he waits for a trial date to be set.

Aung Htun (Burma) was arrested in March 1998 and is serving a fifteen-year prison term for writing a seven-volume history of the Burmese student movement. Previously, Aung Htun was actively involved in the August 1988 uprising. In the early 1990s, he spent four years in prison for engaging in political activities. During that confinement, he was tortured and spent two years in a solitary prison cell.

Grémah Boucar (Niger), publisher of Anfani newspaper and Anfani magazine, is also director of Radio Anfani, a leading private broadcast company that owns three radio stations. In July 1996, soldiers vandalized and closed Radio Anfani for one month in retaliation for its coverage of the political opposition during the run-up to national elections. Arrests and harassment followed. On March 1, 1997, five unidentified men wearing military uniforms ransacked the station's studios and destroyed newly installed equipment valued at US $80,000. Boucar, three journalists, and two security guards were arrested on unspecified charges. On May 4, 1998, Radio Anfani broadcast a petition condemning government attempts to intimidate the press, prompting state security officers to occupy the station. In the summer of 1998, Boucar was kidnapped from his home and threatened with death. He was released but continues to receive death threats. In 1998 alone, he was arrested and detained nine times, but he still refuses to compromise the content of broadcasts on Radio Anfani.

Fabio Castillo (Colombia), journalist, has investigated and reported on corruption and abuse of power within the international drug trade for nearly twenty years. During this time, he received many death threats and was sued repeatedly. In 1986, when El Espectador's publisher was murdered on orders of Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellin cartel, Castillo organized a group of reporters from several papers to publish the same story on the same day in order to deflect attacks against individual journalists. Shortly afterwards, editors at El Espectador refused to publish the findings of one of Castillo's investigations, so he turned the material into a book called The Cocaine Horsemen. Death threats followed its publication and forced him into a five-year exile in Spain. He returned to Colombia in 1993 and resumed writing for El Espectador. In 1998, people close to then-President Ernesto Samper purchased El Espectador, and Castillo was fired. Since then, he has been trying to start a magazine of political humor and investigative journalism.

Akbar Ganji (Iran), editor of the weekly news magazine Rah-e No, was held in incommunicado detention for three months after he gave a speech that criticized the government, and Rah-e No was closed for publishing articles that expressed similar criticism. He was released from detention in 1998 but could be taken back into custody at any time in the next five years.

Hamid-Reza Jalei-Pour (Iran) was the publisher of the daily newspaper Jameh whose reputation for championing reform caused it to be closed. Within a few days, Mr. Jalei-Pour opened another paper, Tous. It was promptly accused of being Jameh under another name. Tous continued to publish despite an attack by Hezbollahi on its editorial offices and threats of legal action. In September 1998, Mr. Jalei-Pour and his colleagues were arrested and charged by the Revolutionary Court with publishing articles "against security and general interests," and then Tous was closed.

Paschal Khoo-Thwe (Burma), student leader, fled to the jungle when threatened with arrest for expressing students' opinions. He worked as a medic in refugee camps and was wounded during an army attack. With the help of a Cambridge University don, he escaped to Thailand, emigrated to England, and entered Caius College where he won a rare first for creative writing in English, his third language. He now works as a cook in London to support himself while he struggles to write.

Niran Malaolu (Nigeria) was arrested in December 1997 at the offices of The Diet, an independent newsweekly where he worked as an editor. Convicted of "information gathering" and "implication in an alleged coup plot," he was sentenced to life in prison with no right of appeal. In July 1998, the sentence was reduced to fifteen years. In prison, he caught typhoid fever and an infection that threatens his eyesight, but prison officials refused to provide medical care. Appeals for his release were finally successful in April 1999.

Goretti Mapulanga (Zambia) has read, produced, directed, and edited news for radio and television. She also anchored the news program, "Good Morning Zambia." Ms. Mapulanga was fired by the state-run television station in November 1997. Her husband, Cornelius Mapulanga, an employee at the same station, was fired the same day. No explanation was provided, but Ms. Mapulanga thinks a telephone interview with President Chiluba about privatization set the stage for firing her. Mr. Mapulanga is thought to have been fired because she would have had undue influence on the station if he worked there. The Mapulangas were offered positions by other broadcast outlets but their would-be employers received warnings from state officials not to hire them and the offers were promptly withdrawn. Their home is under permanent surveillance. State agents follow Ms. Mapulanga when she goes out, she's been chased in the streets by unidentified people, and she and her children have been forced out of public transportation. The Zambian Human Rights Commission (a state commission) refused to investigate.

Recep Marasli (Turkey) has written prolifically in prose and poetry on minority rights and runs a publishing house that specializes in books on Kurdish culture. He has been arrested five times and spent many of the last twenty years in prison where bad treatment and hunger strikes have caused permanent damage to his health. After his most recent arrest in March 1997, he spent a year in jail before being acquitted of charges of involvement in an illegal group. He has left Turkey for the present but still faces other charges and the threat of re-arrest if he returns.

Patricia McFadden (Swaziland) currently lives in Zimbabwe where she is known for her work as a writer and feminist activist in the women's movement, particularly in Southern Africa. Khilida Messaoudi (Algeria), a feminist political activist, has written a memoir and published two books of essays and articles. She founded several women's organizations and organizes against the Family Code which blatantly discriminates against women. In 1993, Islamists issued a fatwa against her. Since then, she has survived three assassination attempts and frequently changes her residence. In 1997, she was elected to the National Assembly as a representative of the RDC, a small secular opposition party.

Modeste Mutinga Mutuishayi (Democratic Republic of Congo), editor and managing director of an independent daily paper, Demain L'Afrique, is also president of an NGO that promotes peace by educating the public on civic issues through the press. In the hostile wartime environment that has prevailed since Kabila assumed power as head of state, Mr. Mutinga's commitment to report the news objectively has caused repeated detentions and harassment by national security agents who have often prevented publication of his newspaper.

Seyeed Ebrahim Nabvi (Iran), writer and political satirist, was arrested and detained for a month because of articles he wrote for Tous and Jameh (see Hamid-Raza Jalei-Pour, above).

Latif Pedram (Afghanistan), poet and journalist, was a founder and an editor of the independent bi-monthly journal, Sobh-i-Omid (Morning of Hope), that was started in Kabul in 1995, three years after the mujahedeen took power and installed an Islamic state. After publishing six issues, Sobh-i-Omid was banned by the government which cited articles by Mr. Pedram that had criticized policies of the government then in power under President Burhanuddin Rabbani. Mr. Pedram was also threatened several times after he published a short book on the need to separate religion from politics. He moved to Pol-i Khomri where he was responsible for running the public library. He also set up two independent publications, a weekly news magazine and a cultural review. In August 1998, two years after the Taliban seized power in Kabul, he learned that they too were seeking his arrest and execution. He went into hiding, but his brother and uncle, who were at his home when the militia arrived, were taken hostage. The library which contained 55,000 books and old manuscripts was burned to the ground. Mr. Pedram escaped to France where he currently lives in exile.

Alex Redd (Liberia), journalist, worked for the News, a newspaper in Monrovia and then for the radio news show "Sunrise," also in Monrovia. Redd was arrested several times and labeled an anti-government element for reporting human rights abuses that angered some government officials. In December 1997, security forces kidnaped, tortured, and threatened him with death for investigating the murder of a prominent opposition politician, Sam Dokie and his family. Mr. Redd was released on bail and staying with friends when his home was vandalized. Fearing for his life, he fled to New York. He was granted political asylum in October 1998 and is living in Madison, Wisconsin, where his family joined him in April 1999.

Hojatolesam Mohssen Saeidzadeh (Iran), a legal scholar who resigned from a judgeship to research and write about Islamic law, is the author of numerous newspaper articles and several books including one on Koranic interpretation that is banned. Mr. Saeidzadeh has argued that Iranian law's discrimination against women is inconsistent with Sharia. This made him a target for conservatives in Iran's clerical establishment. He was arrested in June 1998 and held for four months without charge or access to counsel. On his release from detention, his status as a clergyman was rescinded. In October 1998, Iran's Culture and Islamic Guidance ministry refused to allow publication of his new book, Freedom of Women During the Time of Mohammad, charging that the book showed disrespect to the prophet of Islam.

Masahallah Shamss-Ol-Vaezin (Iran), editor of both Jameh and Tous, has been one of the most outspoken champions of free expression in Iran. After the closing of Tous in September 1998, he was arrested and detained for one month by the Revolutionary Court.

Alieu Sheriff (Sierra Leone and Gambia), journalist, was arrested and detained in his native Sierra Leone for critical reporting on the civil war. He fled to Gambia and within a year was arrested and abused by security forces for writing a commentary on the political situation there. With help from the U.S. ambassador, whom Sheriff met at a USIA-sponsored workshop, Sheriff obtained a U.S. visa. Security officers detained him at the airport and almost refused to let him board the plane. Arriving in New York in December 1994, he was granted asylum in August 1995. Mr Sheriff entered Hunter College, where he won awards for his work as a student journalist, and graduated in December 1998. He will begin a master's degree program at the Columbia School of Journalism in August 1999.

Zamira Sydykova (Kyrgyzstan), journalist, wrote for several newspapers in Kyrgyzstan and then in 1992, seeing opportunities for free expression and free enterprise in the new Kyrgyz Republic, she founded its first independent newspaper, Res Publica. In addition to her duties as editor in chief, Ms. Sydykova took on several major investigations, including the 1997 exposé of the state gold company. This piece provoked a criminal libel suit and resulted in an eighteen- month prison sentence.

* * * *

Other recipients will remain anonymous because of the dangerous circumstances in which they are living. They include writers from Belarus, Cameroon, China, Eritrea, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Togo, United States, and Vietnam. The Hellman/Hammett grants are announced each spring. In the nine previous years of the program, more than 350 writers have received grants totaling more than one-and-a-half million dollars.

The Hellman/Hammett funds also make small emergency grants from time to time throughout the year for writers who have an urgent need to leave their country or who find themselves in desperate financial circumstances as a result of political persecution. Again, Sub-Sahara Africa is home to the most grantees. Among them are: Mark Chavunduka and Ray Choto from Zimbabwe; Edith Lianue Gongloe and Alphonos Onso Nyenuh from Liberia; Andrew Koromah, Kevin Lewis, Winston Ojukutu-Macauley, and David Tam-Baryoh from Sierra Leone.

For more information, contact:

Marcia Allina, 212/216-1246
Carroll Bogert, 212/216-1244


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