Vann Nath, the ailing Tuol Sleng survivor who depicted the horrors of the Khmer Rouge prison in paintings and a book, Tuesday became the ninth Cambodian to receive the prestigious Hellman/Hammett human rights award.
“With or without the formal process of the Khmer Rouge tribunal, he has devoted his life to making sure the lives and deaths of people who were executed, particularly at Tuol Sleng, were not without meaning,” said Sara Colm, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, which administers the awards.
Rights Watch noted that Vann Nath, who is one of a small group of survivors of the notorious prison camp where some 14,000 were tortured and sent to their deaths, would likely serve as a key witness in the planned trials of top Khmer Rouge leaders.
Reached by phone, Vann Nath, 62, sounded pleasantly surprised and a little overwhelmed. “I’m so happy,” he said. “I didn’t expect that they would remember me.”
Colm said Vann Nath’s declining health had contributed to the decision to award him a prize. Vann Nath’s kidneys have failed, and intensive dialysis treatments consume all proceeds from the sale of his paintings, she said.
The Hellman/Hammett program has awarded $2.5 million since its inception in 1989. Colm declined to reveal how much money each prize winner received this year.
The award was created when US playwright Lillian Hellman willed part of her estate to be used in support of needy writers who suffered political persecution. She and her partner, the writer Dashiell Hammett, came under scrutiny when anti-communist hysteria swept through the US in the 1950s.
This year’s winners come from 22 countries, with more than half of the 45 recipients from China, Vietnam and Iran.
They include Huang Xiang, 65, a Chinese poet who spent over 12 years in work camps and prisons, and Nguyen Vu Binh, 38, a Vietnamese democracy activist now in prison.
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul.)