(New York, July 20, 2005) - Writers and journalists from Iran, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia and other countries have been awarded Hellman/Hammett grants in recognition of their courage in the face of political persecution.
Twenty-seven writers around the world received Hellman/Hammett awards this year. The Middle East and North African recipients include:
Assurbanipal Babilla (Iran), playwright and painter
Omid Memarian (Iran), journalist and Internet writer
Sina Mottalebi (Iran), journalist and Internet writer
Taqi Rahmani (Iran), author of 26 books and monographs
Ali Lmrabet (Morocco), journalist and newspaper editor
Maha Hassan (Syria), novelist and essayist
Abdallah Zouari (Tunisia), writer and high school teacher
The other Middle East and North African recipients asked to remain anonymous because of possible continuing danger to them and their families.
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 the American playwright Lillian Hellman willed that her estate be used to assist writers in financial need as a result of expressing their views. Ms. Hellman was prompted by her experiences during the anti-communist hysteria of the 1950s, when she and her long-time companion the writer Dashiell Hammett, were questioned by U.S. Congressional committees about their political beliefs and affiliations.
The writers honored this year have been harassed, assaulted, indicted, jailed on trumped up charges, or tortured merely for providing information from nongovernmental sources.
Short biographies of the Middle East and North African Hellman/Hammett recipients who can be safely publicized follow:
Assurbanipal Babilla (Iran), painter and playwright, was one of three resident directors with the Drama Workshop of Tehran from 1973 to 1978. He fled to the United States in 1979 after the Iranian revolution because as a member of the Assyrian minority group he felt vulnerable. Both his plays and his paintings dealt with controversial material. This put him doubly at risk from the new conservative Islamic government. Mr. Babilla currently works part-time in a coffee shop and lives in a church shelter for homeless people.
Omid Memarian (Iran), journalist, wrote about political and social issues for pro-reform newspapers. After most papers were closed by 2004, Mr. Memarian continued writing on his weblog. During an October 2004 crackdown by the judiciary aimed at silencing Internet journalists and webloggers, he was arrested, held in solitary confinement and tortured. Upon his release in December 2004, he campaigned actively against arbitrary arrests and mistreatment of detainees by the authorities.
Sina Mottalebi (Iran), journalist and Internet writer, was arrested in 2003 during the first wave of the government crackdown on webloggers. Following his release, he fled to the Netherlands. In the summer of 2004, he wrote a detailed exposé of the judiciary's detention and interrogation techniques. The Iranian authorities tried to silence him by arresting his father in Tehran.
Taqi Rahmani (Iran), author of 26 books and monograms, wrote on the religious and political history of Iran, criticizing the relationship between religion and politics and its adverse effect on democratic development. Since 1981, he has spent 16 years in prison because of his writings. In 2002, he was arrested and charged with "propaganda against the regime," "insulting Islamic leaders," and "cooperation with counter-revolutionaries." He is currently in prison.
Ali Lmrabet (Morocco), journalist and editor of two weekly newspapers, was convicted of "insulting the person of the King," committing an "offence against territorial integrity," and an "offence against the monarchy" because he published an interview with an opponent of the monarchy and satirical articles and cartoons about the monarchy and the annual allowance that the royal family receives from the Moroccan Parliament. In May 2003, Mr. Lmrabet was sentenced to three years in prison. He was also fined 20,000 dirham (US$2,300), and both newspapers were banned. In January 2004, he was released by royal pardon. In April 2005, a Moroccan court banned Lmrabet from practicing journalism for 10 years, after finding him guilty of defaming a pro-government group known as the Association of Relatives of Saharawi Victims of Repression. Lmrabet's "offense" was to have referred to the Saharawi people in the Algerian city of Tindouf as refugees, contradicting the Moroccan government's position that they are prisoners of the Polisario Front - a rebel movement that is fighting for the independence of the Western Sahara.
Maha Hassan (Syria), writer of novels, short stories and essays, has been banned from publishing in Syria since 2000 because the authorities consider her writing too liberal, too feministic and "morally condemnable." She first aroused suspicions because a book she wrote was in a literary form that imitated the Torah (the Jewish scriptures), and was therefore labeled a "rehabilitation of Israel." Ms. Hassan writes in Arabic although her mother tongue is Kurdish, and she is of Kurdish heritage, which aggravates her situation. She decided to flee the country when mounting rumors convinced her that she would soon be arrested and jailed. In August 2004, she went to Paris, the first time she had ever left her family or been out of Syria.
Abdallah Zouari (Tunisia), high school teacher, wrote for the Arabic-language organ of An-Nahdha, a Tunisian Islamist party. In the early 1990s, the government of Tunisia arrested hundreds of An-Nahdha's supporters and sentenced them to prison terms in two mass military trials. Mr. Zouari was among those convicted of plotting to overthrow the state and served an 11-year sentence. Upon his release in 2002, the Interior Minister placed him under town arrest in a village in southern Tunisia, far from his family and previous professional life near Tunis. Since his release, he has been imprisoned twice on trumped-up charges, serving a total of 13 additional months. He is under 24-hour police surveillance. Police have also instructed the proprietors of internet cafes near his house to refuse Zouari access to their facilities. Zouari's applications for permission to visit his family have been ignored or rejected and his family's home in Tunis has also come under periodic police surveillance.
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