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Iranian and Vietnamese writers receive PEN award

Iranian writer and Vietnamese Internet dissident to receive 2004 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards

SOURCE: PEN American Center, New York City


(PEN/IFEX) - The following is a 16 April 2004 PEN American Center press release:

Iranian Writer and Lawyer, Vietnamese Internet Dissident to Receive 2004 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards

New York, New York - PEN American Center today named Nasser Zarafshan, a writer, translator and attorney serving a five year prison term for his criticism of the official investigation into the serial murders of writers in the late 1990s in Iran, and Le Chi Quang, whose critical essays about the Vietnamese government earned him a 4-year prison term followed by 3 years of house arrest, as recipients of its 2004 PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards. The awards, which honor international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression, will be presented at PEN's Annual Gala on April 20, 2004 at the Pierre Hotel in New York City.

Distinguished writer, historian, and PEN member Barbara Goldsmith underwrites the two awards. Candidates are nominated by International PEN and any of its 138 constituent PEN Centers around the world and screened by PEN American Center and an Advisory Board comprising some of the most distinguished experts in the field. The Advisory Board for the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards includes Carroll Bogert, Communications Director of Human Rights Watch; Ann Cooper, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists; Vartan Gregorian, President of the Carnegie Corporation; Joanne Leedom-Ackerman, Vice President of International PEN; and Aryeh Neier, President of the Open Society Institute.

Author, translator, and attorney Nasser Zarafshan is a member of the Iranian Writers' Association Kanoon and a distinguished member of the Iranian Bar Association. He acted as the legal representative for the families of two of five Iranian writers who were assassinated in November 1998 in what came to be known in Iran as the 'serial murders.' Those murdered included Majid Charif, an editorialist with the monthly Iran é Farda, writer-journalists Mohamad Mokhtari and Mohamad Jafar Pouyandeh, and a couple, Darioush and Parvaneh Forouhar, who were freedom of expression activists.

In October 2000, members of the Judicial Organization of Armed Forces (JOAF) arrested Zarafshan after he gave a speech in the city of Chiraz publicly alleging that the Iranian intelligence services were behind the 1998 serial murders in Tehran. He was charged with publishing information about the assassinations, imprisoned in December 2000, and released after a month pending trial. While he was in detention, authorities searched Zarafshan's office and alleged they had discovered alcohol and weapons. In February 2002 he was tried in a military court behind closed doors; the presiding judge was a prosecutor with the JOAF. He was sentenced on March 19, 2002 to five years in prison (2 years for disseminating state secrets, 3 for the possession of firearms) and 70 lashes for the possession of alcohol. Zarafshan has consistently denied the firearms and alcohol charges, claiming these were planted in his office by the authorities.

Iranian authorities have so far failed to explain why Zarafshan, a civilian, was brought before the JOAF, the purpose of which is to try members of the armed forces and Revolutionary Guards for violations of the military code. The Chair of the Iranian Parliamentary Committee for Human Rights has protested against the use of a military court in these circumstances, branding it "unconstitutional."

Zarafshan has reportedly appealed to the Supreme Court and is currently awaiting a decision. He is also reportedly undergoing medical examinations to ascertain whether he is healthy enough to face the flogging sentence.

Le Chi Quang was arrested on February 27, 2002 at an Internet café in Hanoi and charged with "acts of propaganda against the state of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam" and "communicating with overseas elements via the Internet." PEN believes he was arrested in connection with an essay entitled "Beware of Imperialist China" that argued that the Vietnamese government had made too many concessions in the Sino-Vietnamese land and sea border agreements of 1999 and 2000.

In August 2002, officials reportedly informed Quang's mother that her son would soon be tried under Article 88 of the Criminal Code, which bans the distribution of information that opposes the government. His trial was scheduled for October 28, but was postponed when the judges claimed that they needed more time to prepare. The trial took place on November 8, 2002 in a closed court; that same day he was sentenced to four years in prison followed by three years' house arrest. While the chief judge told foreign reporters that Quang admitted his guilt, the Free Vietnam Alliance reported that he was in fact "forced to answer 'yes' or 'no' to the allegations against him, and that although Quang admitted writing essays and distributing them over the Internet, he refused to admit that these actions were criminal."

During the trial, Quang's attorney was not allowed to present a case in his defense and only relatives were allowed in the courtroom. Some 100 friends and supporters gathered in front of the courthouse in protest. Tran Dung Tien, a former soldier, was detained after reading a statement outside the courthouse denouncing the proceedings.

Le Chi Quang was transferred from B14 labor camp in Ha Dong Province to Sao Do prison in Nam Ha, Phy Ly Province on December 20, 2002. He suffers from serious kidney dysfunction, and there is concern that he has not been allowed to receive an appropriate diagnosis of his condition and effective medical treatment. He and another prisoner reportedly share a squalid six square meter cell.

Quang's arrest and harsh sentence is part of a larger crackdown on Internet activists by the Vietnamese government to discourage citizens from criticizing or speaking out against the government despite constitutional guarantees of free speech.

In announcing the awards today in New York, Freedom to Write Program Director Larry Siems stressed the role this year's recipients have played in ongoing struggles to expand the freedom to write in their respective countries. "The normalization of trade relations between the US and Vietnam has brought few benefits for those working for political openness and individual rights in Vietnam. Le Chi Quang is one of several young activists who have used the Internet to try to exchange information and who have paid a terrible price for their efforts."

"In Iran," Siems continued, "Nasser Zarafshan has taken one of the greatest risks any citizen in any country can take: he has worked to expose the involvement of top government officials and security agents in a series of political murders. He is a particular hero to PEN because in Iran, those targeted for political assassination were writers."

PEN American Center Executive Director Michael Roberts expressed his hope that the awards would bring the kind of public attention that can prove decisive in such cases. "Day in and day out, PEN and other organizations are working to win the release of hundreds of writers and journalists in similar situations," Roberts noted. "But it is often when the broader public learns of the courage and the fates of individual writers, when their stories become known outside the community of professionals, that governments are finally persuaded to end the abuses. These awards serve as an invitation to join us in our efforts to win the release of Mr. Le and Mr. Zarafshan and others like them."

This is the 18th year that the PEN/Barbara Goldsmith Freedom to Write Awards have honored international literary figures who have been persecuted or imprisoned for exercising or defending the right to freedom of expression. The awards are an extension of PEN's year-round advocacy on behalf of the more than 1,150 writers and journalists who are currently threatened or in prison. Thirty-five women and men have received the award since 1987; 23 of the 27 honorees who were in prison at the time they were honored were subsequently released.

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