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Prisoners of Conscience Event Summary

Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor
New York City
July 24, 2008

INTRODUCTION:

On July 24, 2008, Ambassador T. Vance McMahan, U.S. Representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations, moderated a panel discussion entitled “Courageous Voices: Speaking out for Prisoners of Conscience” at the United Nations in New York to underscore commitments made in the UN Declaration on Prisoners of Conscience.

The UN Declaration, issued in June 2008, was sponsored by the United States and 63 other UN member states, and called for a global commitment to work for the freedom of prisoners of conscience and to make the release of these prisoners a key international priority.

The Declaration further noted that 60 years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, there were still many examples around the world of individuals imprisoned for exercising their rights to the fundamental freedoms of expression and opinion, peaceful assembly, religion, and conscience. The panel hoped to inspire UN Member States and non-governmental organizations to redouble efforts to assist prisoners of conscience and their families and put an end to all forms of persecution.

The panel discussion featured input from former prisoners of conscience and family members of current prisoners from Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Eritrea, Syria, and Uzbekistan who shared compelling testimony about their personal experience with persecution, abuse and imprisonment as well as the experience of their family members for exercising rights and freedoms we all agree are fundamental and inalienable.

PANELISTS:

Ms. Raisa Mikhailovskaya. She is the producer of the documentary film “On the Front Line of the Truth” about the situation of prisoners of conscience, including former presidential candidate Alexander Kozulin, in Belarus. Among other positions, Ms. Mikhailovskaya serves as the coordinator for the Committee “Freedom for Kozulin and all Political Prisoners in Belarus” and is the Executive Director of the human rights organization Public Legal Aid Association. (Link to statement)

Ms. Olga Kozulina, also from Belarus, is the daughter of prominent political figure and prisoner of conscience, Mr. Alexander Kozulin. She is a member of the Social Democratic Party and the "Freedom for Kozulin and All Political Prisoners in Belaurs" committee and has been nominated by her father's party, "Gramada," for the September 28th parliamentary election. (Link to statement)

Mr. Aung Din is the co-founder and executive director of the Washington, DC-based U.S. Campaign for Burma, an umbrella group of exiled Burmese dissidents and American activists. Mr. Aung Din, a Burmese citizen, spent over four years behind bars as a prisoner of conscience after helping to organize the country’s nationwide pro-democracy uprising in August 1988 as Vice Chairperson of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU). ABFSU is the largest national student organization and has been banned by the regime. Amnesty International adopted Mr. Aung Din as a Prisoner of Conscience in 1989, and its chapters worldwide campaigned for his release. He was released in July 1993 and fled Burma in 1995. Mr. Aung Din has been in the United States since 2001. (Link to statement)

Ms. Bertha Antunez Pernet recently arrived in the United States from Cuba. She is the sister of former prisoner of conscience Mr. Jorge Luis Garcia Perez, who is popularly known as “Antunez.” Ms. Antunez Pernet has been politically active since 1992 and a steadfast advocate for prisoners of conscience since her brother’s incarceration. Together with family members of other prisoners of conscience, she is a member of the organization called National Movement of Civic Resistance “Pedro Luis Boitel,” which speaks out against harassment and abuse of relatives in prison. The organization has highlighted the abusive treatment of prisoners of conscience in Cuba and continues to call for changes in the political and penal systems. Ms. Antunez Pernet’s brother was sentenced in 1990 for six years on charges of “spreading enemy propaganda” and “intent to sabotage.” Seventeen more years were added to his sentence for alleged "disrespect" and for an escape attempt in which he tried to see his ill mother before she died. Since his release, he has suffered harassment by the regime for his continued peaceful protests for improved human rights and democratic transition in Cuba. (Link to statement)

Ms. Senait Yohannes is from Eritrea and both her sister and her brother-in-law remain imprisoned in Eritrea for speaking out against the current regime. Ms. Yohannes’ brother-in-law, Petros Solomon, was imprisoned in 2001 as part of the “G-15” group of government officials who addressed a letter of concern to President Isaias. Her sister, Aster Yohannes, was detained upon arrival at Asmara airport and imprisoned after returning to Eritrea from the United States to care for her children after her husband’s arrest. (Link to statement)

Mr. Ausama Monajed is a citizen and former resident of Syria, where he was persecuted, interrogated and detained numerous times because of his political advocacy as a university student. His last detention was by the Political Security apparatus in Damascus in 2004, where he was interrogated and tortured for a week. He was arrested while doing interviews and taking pictures in poor rural areas of Syria to highlight them in regional and international media. He was released after being forced to sign an oath not to be involved in any further political or social activities. Today, Mr. Monajed serves on the National Council of the Damascus Declaration, an umbrella group of leading Syrian democratic opposition parties, prominent figures, intellectuals, and reformers. He is the director of public relations for the Movement for Justice and Development, which leads the struggle for peaceful and democratic change in Syria. (Link to statement)

Mr. Gulambek Umarov of Uzbekistan is the son of Dr. Sanjar Umarov, the founder of the Sunshine Uzbekistan Coalition, a pro-democracy secular opposition movement. Dr. Umarov has been imprisoned since October 2005 on unfounded charges, attracting the attention of international human rights organizations around the world. Mr. Gulambek Umarovhas worked to shed light on prisoners of conscience in Uzbekistan like his father, who was drugged and tortured in prison, and who spent 13 months in solitary confinement and 16 months without being allowed to communicate with legal counsel or family members. Mr. Gulambeck Umarov now leads Sunshine Uzbekistan USA, an organization that calls attention to the inhumane treatment of prisoners of conscience in Uzbekistan, working with the Prisoners of Conscience Program, Prisoners Against Torture, Child Labour, Humanitarian Assistance Program, and others. (Link to statement)

To read the full Declaration on Prisoners of Conscience, please visit: http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N08/376/57/PDF/N0837657.pdf?OpenElement


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