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Wednesday, May 12, 2004

U.S. group gives Bernardo author persecution award

Human Rights Watch doesn't think author Williams committed a crime

By Scott Tracey, Mercury Staff

(Wellington, On.) Stephen Williams legal battle against the provincial government has attracted the attention of an international human rights organization.

The Harriston-based journalist and author has become the second Canadian to receive the Heliman Hammett award, presented annually to journalists who have been the victims of political persecution. The award, given out by New Yorkbased Human Rights Watch, comes with a grant of approximately $5,000 US.

Williams is the author of two books about notorious sex killers Paul Bernardo and his wife Karla Homolka.

The 55-year-old Williams said yesterday he would rather not be in a position to qualify for the award.

ďItís certainly, for us, nice to be recognized...but itís a blight on both the Ontario government and on Canada,Ē he said.

More than 400 journalists have received the award since they began in 1990. In 1996, CBC reporter Joseph Couture received a Hellman-Hammett Award in recognition of his harassment by London, On. police after he discovered that the force was using an investigation of child pornography as a cover for a crackdown on the gay community.

A few Americans have also been among the recipients, but typically the awards are given to writers in countries with totalitarian governments. Last year's winners included writers from China and Nigeria.

"Canada is being lumped in with extremely oppressive regimes," Williams said yesterday from his home office.

He currently faces 97 criminal charges for allegedly violating publication bans connected to the Bernardo-Homolka case. He is also the subject of a civil suit filed by the provincial government.

Williams in turn has filed an abuse of process motion against the province for launching the civil suit, arguing it has hampered his ability to prepare a defence on the criminal charges. That motion is expected to be heard next month and the criminal trial could being before the end of this year.

Williams was arrested May  4, 2003, and held in jail overnight before being released on $25,000 bail. It is alleged he posted the names of some of Bernardo's sexual assault victims on a Web site, which Williams shut down 18 hours after it was created amid concerns from the police about possible publication ban breaches.

Last July, police raided the Harriston farmhouse Williams shares with his wife Marsha Boulton, an author, and seized files and computers. Among the items seized was Boulton's computer, which held the only draft of a half-completed novel that was supposed to be submitted last summer. The police have not returned any of the seized property.

"We're writers and they've taken away our tools and our livelihood," Williams said, adding the government "is trying to demonize me.

"I've become the goat they've put in the clearing to wait for the lions to come around."

Williams was nominated for the Hellman Hammett award by Canadian Journalists for Free Expression.

"Certainly it's very rare for there to be a need to nominate a Canadian," said Julie Payne, spokesperson for that journalists' group, from her Toronto office. "I don't want to be in a situation where we're getting attention for human rights violations in our own back garden."

Marcia AlIina, administrator of the awards program for Human Rights Watch, said there were approximately 50 nominations this year resulting in 27 awards. AlIina said her agency supports Williams' right to collect and disseminate information about the Bernardo and Homolka case.

"If you're supportive of free speech, which we are, what he did was not a crime," Allina said from New York.

A spokesperson for the attorney general's office declined to comment on the award because the Williams case is still before the courts. Williams said he has received financial support from individuals, writers' groups such as Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, and from book publishers.

The annual Hellman-Hammett awards are financed by the estate of playwright Lillian Hellman and her long-time companion Dashiell Hammett, a novelist best known for The Maltese Falcon.

The two American writers were interrogated in the 1950s about their political beliefs and affiliations.

Hellman was questioned by the US Congress House Un-American Activities Committee and suffered professionally for years after.

Hammett spent six months in jail for refusing to name alleged Communist sympathizers while testifying at the hearings run by Senator Joseph McCarthy.

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