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Monday, 3 April 2006

Human Rights Defenders Honored

Five human rights defenders who have made a significant contribution to free expression over the past year have been recognized in the annual Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards.

The human rights defenders were selected from a shortlist of 25 individuals and organizations. The winners were announced March 22 in London.

Huang Jingao won the Index Whistleblower Award. Jingao is a former local Communist Party official in southern China who drew national attention in August 2004 when he posted an open letter on a party Web site complaining that efforts to prosecute corruption were being thwarted by high-level officials. He was removed from his post and sentenced to life in prison in November after a campaign by party authorities.

Bahman Ghobadi, a Kurdish director from Iran, won the Index Film Award for "Turtles Can Fly," a moving tale, set in the harsh landscapes of Kurdistan in the days leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In the film, a gang of wily and irreverent children is challenged by the arrival of a brother and sister, refugees whose bodies and souls have been irreparably damaged by the brutality of Saddam Hussein's regime.

Jean Hatzfeld won the T.R. Fyvel Book Award for "Into the Quick of Life: The Rwandan Genocide — The Survivors Speak" and "A Time for Machetes: The Rwandan Genocide — The Killers Speak."

In the late 1990's the French journalist interviewed survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in the villages of Nyamata and N'tarama, where, in the first two days of the genocide, over 10,000 Tutsis were massacred in the churches where they sought refuge. The survivors were drawn from all ages and different walks of life, from orphaned teenage farmers to the local social worker. The survivors Hatzfeld interviewed talk of the genocide, the death of family and friends in the church and in the marshes of Bugesera to which they fled. They also talk of their present life and try to explain and understand the reasons behind the extermination. These horrific accounts of life at the very edge, in "Into the Quick of Life," contrast with Hatzfeld's own sensitive and vivid descriptions of Rwanda's villages and countryside in peacetime.

In 2000 Hatzfeld returned to interview the men behind one of the most devastating crimes against humanity in recent history. "A Time for Machetes" is the result of his interviews with nine of the Hutu killers. Most of the men were farmers, ordinary men. They told Hatzfeld how the work was given to them, what they thought about it, how they did it, what their responses were to the first time they killed and what they felt when they killed a mother and child or an acquaintance.

Beatrice Mtetwa won the Index Law Award. Mtetwa is a prominent media and human rights lawyer in Zimbabwe working to defend and protect journalists in the face of frequent threats to her safety. Most recently, Mtetwa secured the release of journalists Toby Harnden and Julian Simmonds of the London Sunday Telegraph, who were arrested after publishing critical accounts of Zimbabwe's flawed presidential elections.

In October 2002, she was the victim of an attempted carjacking while driving in Harare. She summoned the police, but rather than pursue the thieves, the police detained her, claiming that she was driving while intoxicated. Mtetwa demanded that she be given a breathalyzer and blood test, but no tests were carried out. Instead, a police officer beat her in the back of a police vehicle and the beating continued, in plain sight of other officers, when they arrived at the Borrowdale police station. She subsequently received medical treatment for the injuries sustained to her head, face, arms, back and thighs.

The attack was part of a pattern where lawyers in Zimbabwe who provide legal representation to government critics, members of the political opposition or other individuals who are unpopular with the authorities are targeted for abuse.

Last year, authorities in Zimbabwe placed her on a list of between 15 and 64 people whose passports have, or will be, seized to prevent them from traveling from or into Zimbabwe. Those affected include lawyers, journalists, trade unionists, members of the opposition Movement for Democratic Change political party and other human rights campaigners. They and others on the list have been selected because of their peaceful criticism of the government and its policies.

Sihem Bensedrine won the Index/Hugo Young Journalism Award. Bensedrine is editor of the banned magazine Kalima and a prominent activist for press freedom in Tunisia. During the World Summit on Information Society in Tunis, in November, Bensedrine helped highlight Tunisia's restrictions on freedom of expression. She has been jailed for her opinions and faces regular harassment from the Tunisian authorities.

Index on Censorship was founded in 1972 by the poet Stephen Spender in response to a plea for help from Soviet dissidents facing show trials in Moscow. The Index was founded on the principle that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right. The Freedom of Expression Awards is in its sixth year.

This article was first published in the World Press Review.

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