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Courageous Voices: Speaking Out for Prisoners of Conscience

T. Vance McMahan, U.S. Representative to UN Ambassador
Panel Discussion at the United Nations in Conjunction with the Commemoration of the Declaration on Prisoners of Conscience
New York City
July 24, 2008

On July 24, U.S. Representative to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations Ambassador T. Vance McMahan moderated a panel discussion at the United Nations in New York to underscore commitments made in the Declaration on Prisoners of Conscience.

The Declaration, issued in June, 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 are 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 discussion featured input from former prisoners of conscience and family members of current prisoners from Belarus, Burma, Cuba, Eritrea, Syria, and Uzbekistan.


Statement by U.S. Representative T. Vance McMahan

Distinguished guests,

It is an honor for me to welcome you to today’s panel discussion entitled “Courageous Voices: Speaking out for Prisoners of Conscience.” Over the course of the next hour we will hear from six brave individuals: some who have themselves endured the terrible hardship of persecution, torture, and imprisonment at the hands of their own government for exercising the fundamental right to speak their mind, and others who have suffered the tragedy of separation from a loved one who continues to be held as a prisoner of conscience.

The Universal Declaration on Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly nearly sixty years ago, sets forth the rights to freedom of opinion and expression, to peaceful assembly and association, and to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The international community has reaffirmed these rights countless times since 1948.

Yet, for many of our brothers and sisters across the globe, the reality is a different one. Their governments intimidate, imprison, and often torture individuals for trying to exercise these fundamental rights – to speak their views, to gather in public, to publish opinion critical of the political leadership, to practice their faith, or to seek or disseminate information. Regrettably, sixty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, there are still countless examples around the world of governments using imprisonment to suppress political opposition and silence human rights defenders. Prisoners of conscience are confined to jails or prisons, held in house arrest, and, in many cases, kept under abysmal, life-threatening conditions. As some of our panelists today can attest, often family members are also intimidated and abused as a means to silence dissent.

Last month, 64 UN Member States took a stance on behalf of prisoners of conscience around the world. These countries together signed a Declaration on Prisoners of Conscience, committing themselves to work for the freedom of prisoners of conscience and to make the release of these prisoners a key priority in their relations with other States.

As laid out in that Declaration, we call on all Member States of the United Nations to affirm their commitment embodied in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights that all citizens may freely express their opinions and assemble peacefully without fear of reprisal. We hope today’s event will inspire UN Member States and non-governmental organizations to redouble current efforts to assist prisoners of conscience and their families and to put an end to all forms of persecution.

We honor today those courageous men and women who have or who continue to suffer from government repression for peacefully advocating for change. We are privileged to have among us today six remarkable individuals, who have dared to speak out. They are here today to share with us their experience with persecution and abuse for exercising rights and freedoms we all agree are fundamental and inalienable. Their presence demonstrates that, tragically, the existence of prisoners of conscience is not limited to a single country or to a specific region of the world. Instead, persecution of human rights defenders occurs in many parts of the globe and requires the urgent attention of the international community as a whole.

We are grateful for their willingness to share their stories and for their continued strength to advocate for change.

Let me first introduce 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. She has kindly agreed to be with us today in the absence of Mr. Kozulin’s daughter, Ms. Olga Kozulina, whom we were delighted to have with President George W. Bush for his remarks on the Freedom Agenda in Washington this morning and who has kindly prepared a taped statement for us today. 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. She has also written extensively on Belarus, including an investigative series on the disappearances of prominent political figures and a book about the imprisonment of Alexander Kozulin. We are pleased to have her with us to. I now invite you to view Ms. Kozulina’s remarks and then hear from Ms. Mikhailovskaya.

Next let me welcome Mr. Aung Din, 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 him 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. Please welcome Mr. Aung Din.

We will now hear from Ms. Bertha Antunez Pernet, whorecently 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 herself since 1992 and a steadfast advocate for political prisoners 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 “Antunez” 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 human rights and democratic government in Cuba. We thank Ms. Antunez Pernet for joining us today and invite her to share her story.

Our next speaker, Ms. Senait Yohannes, is from Eritrea and also comes to us as a family member affected by the imprisonment of her loved ones. 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. We are pleased that Ms. Yohannes has agreed to speak about the tragic plight of her family. I invite Ms. Yohannes to now share her remarks.

I next would like to welcome Mr. Ausama Monajed. He 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 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. We are delighted to have Mr. Monajed with us today.

Finally, let me welcome Mr. Gulambek Umarovof Uzbekistan. Mr. Umarov 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. Please help me welcome Mr. Umarov.


I extend my heartfelt thanks to our courageous and articulate panelists. Their compelling stories have brought home the tragic reality that prisoners of conscience and their families face around the globe. It is our responsibility as members of the international community to stand up for these individuals who have suffered grave injustices for peacefully exercising the rights and fundamental freedoms that were established 60 years ago in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The stories we have heard today represent only a few notable examples of thousands of individuals around the world whose voices will never be heard if we do not take up their cause and make the release of prisoners of conscience a priority for the international community.

I also thank all of the representatives of the permanent missions here with us today and the representatives of the NGO community, many of whom continue to work tirelessly for the release of prisoners of conscience. Your work is deeply meaningful to prisoners of conscience, past and present. We will continue to look for ways to end the deplorable practice of imprisoning human rights defenders, democracy activists and others – as we seek the release of current prisoners of conscience in all corners of the world.

I ask you to join me in applauding our very brave and dedicated panel members for sharing their stories with us today.


Statement of Olga Kozulina

My father, Mr. Aleksandr Kozulin is a former Rector of the country’s main university – Belarus State University – and a former Deputy Education Minister.

He ran for president in the presidential elections held in Belarus on March 19, 2006.

He was not afraid to say in his televised speech on the criminal activities and corruption of Belarus’ president, Aleksandr Lukashenko. This was the main reason of why someone who is still calling himself head of state took revenge on Professor Kozulin.

The week after the elections, he was arrested and sentenced to five and a half years in prison.

On October 20, 2006, Kozulin went on an indefinite political hunger strike to protest against the illegitimate president and draw the attention of the international community to the violations of human rights in Belarus.

On December 10, 2006, we learned that in response to my father’s requirement, the US Government raised the issue of observing human rights in Belarus at the session of the UN Security Council. It was only after this that my father agreed to stop his 53-day hunger strike.

I want to thank the USA for saving my father’s life. He is still in prison, and we hope that he will be released. We need the help of the United States and the international community. We think that the tough position towards Belarus is the right position and will help release all political prisoners. Thank you very much.


Statement of Raisa Mikhailovskaya

Ladies and gentlemen,

Today the Belarusian civic discourse focuses on two topics: the fate of its political prisoners, and that of President Lukashenko's eleven political opponents who have disappeared immediately after his victory in the elections of 1994.

In the period since 1994, 53 people have been falsely charged with criminal violations in retribution for their political activities. Mihail Chigir, Mihail Marinik, Andrei Klimov, and Nikolai Statkevich have all been sentenced to jail-time based on falsified criminal charges. They are all serving sentences of various lengths behind bars merely because they openly declared their intention to run for president.

But even by Belarusian legal standards, the filing of 3 criminal lawsuits against Aleksandr Kozulin during his participation in the 2006 presidential campaign is without precedent.

In June of 2006, Belarus held 14 political prisoners, they included: former Deputy of the House of Representatives Sergei Skrebets, the leader of social-democrats Nicolai Statkevich, youth leaders Pavel Severinets and Dmitriy Dashkevich, civil rights activist Ekaterina Sadovskaya, and others such as the entrepreneurs Nicolai Avtuhovich and Yuri Leonov.

At the end of 2007, the Belarusian government, under pressure from the United States and the European Union, were forced to free some of its political prisoners. In January and February of 2008, five more political prisoners were freed. Former presidential candidate, Aleksandr Kozulin, was not one of them.

During his prison term, Kozulin's wife, Irina, was diagnosed with cancer and a terrible prognosis. Her illness notwithstanding, she continued fighting for the civil rights of her husband and the other political prisoners of Belarus. And when Kozulin was offered to go into exile under the pre-text that he was taking care of his sick wife and under the condition that he ask for clemency, both Kozulin and his wife refused. A week later, she passed away. Only under international pressure and Kozulin’s threat of the most severe form of a hunger strike, refusing to drink even water, did the Belarusian authorities allow Kozulin a 3-day visit to say good-bye to his wife. To this day, he remains in jail.

President Lukashenko continues to cynically declare that Belarus does not have political prisoners. However, as the criminal proceedings against the youth activists participating in the peaceful protests of Belarusian entrepreneurs in January of this year amply demonstrate, the number of political prisoners in Belarus continues to grow.

On April 22, 2008, Belarusian youth opposition group activist Andrei Kim was sentenced to 1.5 years behind bars for allegedly attacking a law enforcement officer. Another political prisoner Sergei Parsyukevich was charged and sentenced with the same crime.

On the night of July 4 of this year, an explosion took place in Minsk, leaving some 50 people wounded. The government charges the opposition with a role in the explosion. Thirteen political activists were held for up to 10 days on charges of being involved in the blast.

Thus, Belarus's ruling regime has created an atmosphere of fear and a realistic possibility of criminal prosecution for anyone who dares to run for president or exhibit any other participation in the civic life. Moreover, anyone living in Belarus can become a victim of politically motivated criminal proceedings.

The democratic forces in Belarus demand the immediate release of all political prisoners. The United States and the European Union similarly demand that political prisoners be released before Belarus's relationship with the two powers can be normalized. However, the release of today's political prisoners is no guarantee that tomorrow others will not take their places behind bars.

We must demand institutional changes in the Belarusian legal code, real division between the judiciary and the executive branches of government, complete rehabilitation of the political prisoners, and the prevention of such practices in the future. This is the position of the United States.

Joint action by the United States and the European Union and an uncompromisingly firm position on their part could force Lukashenko's government to yield in a major way, and to solve the problem of the prisoners of consciousness once and for all.

We are grateful to the president and the government of the United States for their firmness in dealing with the Belarusian dictatorial regime to date.

Thank you very much!


Statement of Gulambek Sanjar Umarov

First of all, I would like to extend my gratitude to the member states responsible for drafting and signing the Declaration on Prisoners of Conscience. I would also like to express my admiration to the members of this panel for their strength and bravery under constant threats to themselves and their families. I am proud to stand together with them against the all too common practices of the oppression and the imprisonment of innocent people. Finally, I would like to thank the United States Mission to the United Nations for the opportunity to be apart of a discussion on a topic that effects the daily lives of thousands of people in my home country of Uzbekistan.


Any discussion of prisoners of conscience in Uzbekistan must first be framed within the context of the GOU's long standing, official position that it is a democratic country where human rights are protected by laws; while the reality, as is well documented by international human rights organizations, is that the GOU has, since its inception, used these very same laws to persecute any individual who dare to openly disagree with it. The tragedy is that this kind of “official democracy” does not serve to better the lives of its citizens, but rather serves to limit freedom and restrain the potential of Uzbekistan's finest asset, its own people.

The irony of the GOU's official position towards human rights has become ever more apparent as it tries to overcome international isolation resulting from the tragic events in Andijon in May 2005. The GOU has undertaken several initiatives, including the institution of habeas corpus and the abolition of the death penalty, as well as the ratification of ILO Convention 138 on Minimum Age and Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor.

Having said that, we welcome the official decision to allow Red Cross to resume prison visits and hope that other respected organizations, like Human Rights Watch, will be allowed to assist independent Uzbek organizations to improve their effectiveness. Furthermore, we hope the GOU will allow intergovernmental organizations such as UNICEF, ILO, and the International Cotton Advisory Committee (ICAC) in cooperation with respected human rights NGOs, to conduct an assessment of labor conditions in the cotton sector, in conformance with obligations under ILO 182. Such actions will demonstrate the commitment of the GOU to democracy and the rule of law, as is common in any truly independent country.

However, as in the past, the GOU's official positions continue to sharply diverge from the application of its hollow version of the democratic rule of law. The biggest problem is that government officials interpret the law in their own understanding as they see fit to achieve efficiency in overall statistical results. My father’s story is one example of the GOU's application of the rule of law to individuals who express views that differ from those of the Government of Uzbekistan.


Beginning in 2004, my father, Dr. Sanjar Umarov, became increasingly concerned about the ever widening gap between the policies of the Government of Uzbekistan and the needs and expectations of its people. As a result, he sought to establish a coalition of independent civil society groups that could engage in a dialogue with the GOU to bring about democratic and much-needed economic reforms through gradual and evolutionary means. He publicly affirmed his allegiance to Uzbekistan's Constitution and disavowed any attempts to force change through threats, bloodshed, or abuse. But as a direct result of his public calls for a peaceful dialogue, the GOU brought against him, and his extended family, the full force of its prosecutorial might. As an attempt to erase my family’s history, the GOU demolished the memorial and renamed the street and neighborhood once dedicated to the accomplishments of my Grandfather.

When the time came for the GOU to substantiate its accusations against my father, it relied further on the tried and true practices of totalitarian regimes the world over. My father, Dr. Sanjar Umarov, was accused and convicted of crimes based on testimony provided by witnesses who themselves had been subjected to torture. Moreover, during his interrogation and subsequent confinement, my father has been subjected to inhumane treatment, including the apparent administration of psychotropic drugs, gassing via automobile exhaust, beatings, and the withholding of obviously needed medical treatment required for chronic conditions developed during his incarceration. As a result of these and other outrages, my family and I fear that Dr. Sanjar Umarov may, at any time, die in the custody of the GOU, and we implore the world's democratic nations to demand his immediate and unconditional release.

While my family's primary goal is simply the humanitarian release of Dr. Sanjar Umarov, we also remain committed to pursuing my father's vision of meaningful reform through dialogue with the GOU. This objective will aid all parties involved to better understand the complexity of the unique Uzbek reality, as well as the need for real, fundamental reforms. This is the only way for Uzbekistan to avoid civil unrest and religious extremism. But real reform will be possible only when the leaders of Uzbekistan listen to the cries of their long suffering brothers and sisters, rather than jail them for expressing their despair. We therefore call on the sponsors of the Declaration on Prisoners of Conscience to support a meaningful dialogue with the GOU through continued pressure for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience, as well as pressure for concrete steps towards the establishment of a genuine rule of law culture.

Finally, I wish to make a personal appeal to the President of Uzbekistan, Islam Abduganievich Karimov. If the purpose of my father's imprisonment was to serve as a lesson to others on the consequences of speaking out, I assure you that the lesson has been learned. My father is ill and presents no threat. Please release prisoners of conscience, please release my father.


Statement of Bertha Antunez Pernet

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to provide my testimony as a human rights activist and defender of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in my country, Cuba. I have been in exile for five months and for many years I struggled in Cuba for the freedom for all Cuban political prisoners, especially for the freedom of my brother, Jorge Luis García Pérez “Antúnez.” Though I am off the island, my struggle continues.

I would like to summarize the human rights situation in my country. In Cuba, hundreds of people serve prison sentences for their ideas, for thinking differently from the Castro brothers’ communist ideology. These people are arbitrarily detained, submitted to psychological and physical torture, and in many cases, their families are harassed. They are tried without legal guarantees, and later confined in prisons, in most cases, hundreds of kilometers from their places of residence and under inhumane conditions.

Fidel and Raúl Castro have publicly said that there are no political prisoners in Cuba and have affirmed that there is no torture. This is false and I say this from my own experience.

My brother was detained in 1990 for expressing, in a public square, that in Cuba there needed to be reforms like those that were being carried out in Eastern Europe. He served 17 years and 38 days of captivity and was submitted to physical torture, brutal beating, and punishment cells, without the right to communicate or see his family for long periods of time, without the right to religious or medical assistance. In 1992 my brother was handcuffed and dogs were set on him. He still has scars from their bites. In mid 2000, our family had to peacefully protest and carry out a sit-in in front of Nieves Morejón Prison in Sanctí Spíritus for 29 days and nights for my moribund brother to be granted medical assistance in that prison.

In July 2004, in Ariza Provincial Prison in Cienfuegos, during a family visit, my brother was savagely beaten in our presence and we, and the children who were with us, were also beaten. The incident occurred because my brother asked the prison guards about the letters and cards he had been denied that he had been sent from all over the world. Yedier Rodríguez Pérez, my young step-nephew who was with us that day, because he is my brother’s wife’s son, received a strong kick in the kidney during the beating. My brother remained for more than 13 years in prisons, thousands of kilometers from our city of residence, as a punitive measure against us, who had to travel under terrible conditions to see him for scarce family visits. In 1996, my brother had only one family visit. Another aspect I would like to point out is that my brother and our family not only suffered because of our political ideas, but also because of the color of our skin. My brother suffered greater abuses and humiliations because he is black. The regime sells a false image of equality. If you are black, you have to be communist or you are doubly repressed.

I could continue enumerating concrete facts about my experience, but it would be a long list of violations. What happened to my family and brother is not an isolated case, it occurs to hundreds of people in Cuba who have to suffer the unjust imprisonment of their loved ones and the pain of seeing them fall ill and physically deteriorate on the whim of a political system that oppresses and deceives its citizens.

The Declaration about prisoners of conscience in the World, distributed as a document of the United Nations General Assembly and signed by numerous member countries of this entity, allows us to make an urgent petition for Cuban prisoners of conscience and their immediate and unconditional release.

The Cuban state is a member of the United Nations General Assembly, as well as this entity’s Human Rights Council. To achieve their membership in this Council, Cuba promised to respect and promote the 30 articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in a document signed on March 16, 2006. In addition to this, Cuba signed the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights early this year. Why does the Cuban government break these international covenants, increasing the repression and the harassment against Cuban citizens on the island and especially against defenders of human rights? The countries and non-governmental entities that belong to the United Nations should ask Raul Castro’s government this question. The Cuban people have been asking their government this question for almost 50 years.

We ask the democratic countries of the World for their support and solidarity. The cause of freedom for Cuba and for Cuba’s political prisoners is one that concerns humanity. It is about reaching out a single hand to those with the courage to speak up when their rights are violated. If the democratic countries of the World remain silent toward this reality, they will be turning their backs on those who suffer and will be supporting the evil of the Castro brothers’ repressive system with their silence. The Cuban people who struggle for their freedom hope for your support.

Thank you.


Remarks by Ausama Monajed

Thank you Ambassador McMahan.


Ladies and gentlemen,

I am here to tell you about prisoners of conscience in my country Syria.

Imagine if you will, the following: Imagine a middle-aged woman. She is a doctor, and she is imprisoned for her political convictions. She suffers from recurring tumors in her stomach and womb, and from an acute form of arthritis. In an overcrowded prison, she learns that her husband of 24 years, has been deported out of Syria, never to return, for no other reason than for being her partner. She remains steadfast to the noble principles that she has committed her life to upholding.

Then imagine an elderly man, sick with cancer, also imprisoned for his political convictions. His head shaved bold, he is left in a cold and damp prison corridor, without blankets in the height of winter. While cancer ravages his body, he knows that he will die but, nevertheless, he also remains steadfast to the course which he has chosen for himself: to fight for freedom and justice in Syria.

Ladies and gentlemen, these are not figments of my imagination. These are real people and real struggles. That middle-aged woman is Dr. Fida al-Horani. Before her arrest she and her husband used to run a hospital for disadvantaged people in her home town of Hama. She was also the elected chairwoman of the National Council of Damascus Declaration, the largest pro-democracy opposition coalition in Syria.

And that elderly man is Riad Seif, a former MP and successful businessman who has worked more than anyone to galvanize the pro-democracy movement in Syria. He was bankrupted by the Syrian regime, his son was murdered, and he spent five years in prison for being the first to raise the issue of high-level corruption in parliament. He is now in prison again for his leading role in championing democracy in my country.

There are many more prisoners of conscience in Syria. Dr Yasser al-Eiti, a physician and poet and a Damascus Declaration leader who we know is being tortured particularly viciously because he is young and fit. Dr Kamal Labwani, a doctor and artist, who is suffering from prostate cancer and whose prison term was recently extended by three more years for allegedly insulting Bashar Assad in his prison cell. Then there is Dr Akram Al-Bunni, Ali Al-Abdullah, Fayez Sarah, Dr. Walid Al-Bunni, Dr Ahmad To'ma, Khalil Hussein, Professor Arif Dalila and Michel Kilo. And let's not forget the thousands of lesser known prisoners of conscience, young men and women activists like Husam Mulhim, Diyab Sariyah and Mahir Asber who are arrested and tried by the notorious Supreme State Security Court, a court which operates outside the ordinary criminal justice system.

Ladies and gentlemen I dread to think of what these infinitely brave men and women are undergoing in prison. I have an idea because I have experienced it myself. In 2004 I was detained by the brutal Political Security apparatus in Damascus. My crime was to conduct interviews and capture photographs in deprived rural areas, to get it published in the international media. I was interrogated and tortured throughout my detention.

What I saw inside prison was a sadistic regime, one which wallowed in inflicting pain and humiliating its own citizens. I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones to have survived. I felt it my duty to tell the whole world what is happening to those who are still in prison, and who have chosen to make a stand knowing full well the price that they will have to pay.

This is the story of prisoners of conscience in Syria. None of these people or their loved ones deserves to suffer or to be in jail, and much less to be tortured. And let no one tell you that there are no political prisoners in Syria. And let there be no doubt in your minds as to who these prisoners are: They are not terrorists, or extremists, or rabble-rousers, or foreign agents. They are like you here in this room: Decent people who believe in the same things as you believe in: Freedom of expression, the right to elect one's government, a just and independent judiciary, and equality before the law. They are conscientious individuals fighting for their human, political and social rights in Syria. They want to restore pride in Syria and in themselves as Syrians.

Ladies and gentlemen, engagement with the Syrian regime should not be made at the expense of these prisoners of conscience. The United Nations, as representing the will of the international community, bears a responsibility to these prisoners that they shall not be forgotten, and that the regime which imprisons them shall not be allowed to continue in its repressive practices unchecked.

Regimes which stunt the growth of democracy and civil society and continue to respond to their people's legitimate calls for change with harsh repression should not be welcomed but shunned. Prisoners of conscience should be recognized as such by the international community and should be afforded support and encouragement. The United Nations has a key role to play in this.

Ladies and gentlemen, in January of this year, only a few hours before he was arrested, I was on the phone with Riad Seif. He said to me in no uncertain terms “Ausama, we are paying a very heavy price for our cause, and we are prepared to pay more. However, please make sure that our sacrifices do not go in vain, please let the whole world know the truth about this regime and the truth about our struggle.”

Thank you


Remarks by Aung Din


Ambassador McMahan, thank you very much for your kind introduction.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am truly honored to be here with you all to commemorate the “Declaration on Prisoners of Conscience”, which is another milestone of the 21st century , after the sixty year anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Thank you very much for giving me an opportunity to speak on behalf of political prisoners in Burma, also known as Myanmar, a country of Southeast Asia, which has been ruled by the most repressive military regime since 1962.

Once, our leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in 2002, quote, “until all of our political prisoners are free, none of us can say that Burma is now truly on the road towards democratic change” unquote. It was then she had been released from her second house arrest; however, not soon after, she was put in detention again and remains under house arrest until today. She is the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize Recipient and one of over 2,000 political prisoners, being held in 43 prisons and 32 labor camps, scattered all over the country. They are men and women, teachers and students, Buddhist Monks, nuns and other religious leaders, party members and human rights defenders, journalists, writers, musicians and comedians, Members of Parliament-elect, ethnic leaders and trade unionists. They all are arrested for their simple desire to obtain democracy and human rights by peaceful means. Many activists have been killed in interrogation chambers and died in prison. I deeply remember them today, Prisoners of Conscience of Burma, as I was one of them 15 years ago.

I was a 25 year-old Engineering student in 1988. Together with my fellow students, I organized a nationwide popular uprising in Burma in August 1988, in which millions of people from all walks of life came to the streets and called for the military regime to end its dictatorship and to restore democracy and human rights. The military regime responded with excessive force, automatic weapons and brutally crushed down the peaceful demonstrators. Tens of thousands of protestors were killed, and thousands more were arrested. After hiding for six months, I was arrested in April 1989.

I was arrested by the military intelligence, which is known in Burma as MI, on a passenger bus, while I was moving from a hiding place to another. A group of strong men forcibly removed me from the bus, blindfolded me, and handcuffed me at my back and threw me into a waiting truck. For two hours, I was on the floor of the truck, lying and facing the dirty floor, and these men put their boots on my body. For them, I was defeated. I heard their voice, reporting to their boss, using a walky-talky, that their mission was accomplished. I realized that a gate of hell was open.

For one month, I was detained at the military intelligence headquarters, on the outskirts of Rangoon, former capital of Burma. After a two hours drive, I was thrown into a small room, subsequently tortured severely and continuously. Sometimes I was like a soccer ball in the football field, being kicked by several players. Sometimes I was a punching bag, being hit by many fists. Sometimes I was hanged from the ceiling, upside down, with my head drowning in a bucket of water. I couldn’t protect the attacks, as my eyes were blindfolded. I couldn’t avoid these kicks as my hands were tied. A group came in for torture, then they left, then another group came in for questioning, then they left, then another group came in for torture. Torturing and interrogation took turns for seven days continuously days and nights, and I was not given food and water. I was not allowed to sleep and use toilet in these days. I was not even allowed to lose my consciousness. When I passed out, they took of the blindfold, and simply splashed cool water on my face to wake me up.

After one month of interrogation, I was sent to Insein Prison, another living hell for political activists in Burma. I was put in solitary confinement for 12 months. My solitary confinement was a tiny cell, 8 foot by 12 foot, constructed with four concrete walls and a ceiling that was too high. There was one iron-gate at the front and a small window covered with wire-mesh high on the back wall. I was allowed to leave from the cell for 15 minutes per day to take bath and throw increments. I had to stay 23 hours and 45 minutes per day in this tiny cell, together with small insects, such as ants, mosquitoes, flies and bugs, for a year.

Once, I got a small piece of brick that I had picked up from a nearby bathing place. I used this piece of brick and drew a calendar on the wall. First I made the seven columns and marked the days, Sunday, Monday, etc. Then I made the 5 rolls and marked the dates, from 1 to 30. Then I checked off every day I passed. One month had quickly ended. I had to draw another month, then another month, then. One day, a prison official noticed these calendars on the wall and he went ballistic. He instructed the warders to bring me to his office, he accused me that I violated the prison rules and decided to give me a punishment, which was a three-day stay in a pitch-black cell with only glue for food.

When I looked at that cell from outside, I didn’t see any difference. But I found the difference when I was in there. It was similar to the other cells, 8 foot by 12 foot. But the window at the back wall and the iron-gate at the front were covered with thick metal plates. When they closed the door, there was no light in the cell. I couldn’t even see my fingers. They also took off my clothes; therefore I was naked. There was no bamboo mat, no blanket, and no chamber pot. I was scared within a few minutes. I tried to control myself, so I sang songs, I shouted, I jumped, and I cried. I tried to lie down on the floor, but it was too cold. I couldn’t lie down for more than 15 minutes. I did everything that made me feel alive and still sane. It was the first time I started to look for someone to pray to protect me under the huge amount of fear. I might have become crazy if they had put me in that cell for more than three days. The only food I got was glue, which was made of with low-quality broken rice and used to feed pigs.

After that punishment, I decided that I would try to avoid punishment in the future. But it was very difficult to do so, because; first, we could not always obey these dirty regulations. Second, there were many rules that cannot be remembered all the time. Third, prison authorities are always trying to find mistakes of the political prisoners purposely. Therefore, almost all political prisoners have to go through the experiences of various and severe punishments in jail. And I received punishments again and again.

Now, I am in freedom, but many of my colleagues are still in prisons in Burma. They are not criminals. Actually, they are the future of our country and their lives should be used for building a better nation. They should be freed immediately and unconditionally and they should be allowed to participate in the country’s political process. That’s why; we are appealing the UN Security Council to take an effective action on Burma. However, the Security Council is paralyzed by two veto power countries, China and Russia.

I appreciate the commitment made by these 64 nations, including the United States, 27 EU members and 36 other nations, “to work for the freedom of prisoners of conscience and to make their release a key priority in their relations with other states”. I hope their determination and decisive and collective action will help prisoners of conscience all over the world, including from Burma, to be free soon.


Thank You,

Aung Din
Executive Director
U.S. Campaign for Burma
aungdin@uscampaignforburma.org


Statement by Aster Yohannes - Eritrea

I want to thank the United States Mission to the United Nations and the United States Department of State for inviting me to be part of a panel of speakers to commemorate the Declaration of Prisoners of Conscience.

I’m particularly proud to be among these people who have shown courage in speaking out against injustices and for their tireless efforts on behalf of prisoners of conscience in their respective countries.

I’m very pleased to be here to speak about the plight of the many Eritrean prisoners of conscience who are languishing in the dungeons of the regime in Asmara – particularly, on behalf of my sister, Aster Yohannes and her husband, Petros Solomon.

But I’m equally saddened to be here, I wish there was no reason for me to be in this position. After so many sacrifices for the independence of Eritrea - for freedom, justice and self-determination, our country should have been a place blessed with liberty, justice and rule of law that every citizen enjoyed. Unfortunately, it has become a big jail where people who contributed enormously for its liberation are now denied basic right – even a day in court or visitation rights. The tragedy that afflicts Eritrea is beyond anybody’s imagination.

My sister, Aster Yohannes was detained by security forces on December 11, 2003 from Asmara airport upon here return home to be with her children after three years of study in the USA. She has been detained in solitary confinement, and to-date she has not been allowed any visits from her children or family members. The Eritrean Government has not charged Aster with any crime nor have they provided any reason for her continuous detention. Aster’s only crime is being the wife former Foreign Minister and Prisoner of Conscience Petros Solomon.

Since its independence in 1991, Eritrea is being ruled by an unelected party that has a complete monopoly of economic, political and social life in the country. The group known as the G15, of which Aster’s husband, Mr. Petros Solomon, was a member, challenged the ruling party and called for democratic reforms and demanded the implementation of the constitution that was ratified in 1997. By imprisoning G15, who included prominent leaders of Eritrea, the regime completely eradicated any meaningful voice of dissent inside the country. The regime is hostile to the idea of democracy and rule of law.

The regime has criminalized dissent in Eritrea; it has closed down all private media and imprisoned journalists. One of those journalists who have been laungushin in prison since September 2001 is Amanuel Asrat. Amanuel is a highschool schoolmate of mine. He was top of his school student. Amanuel fought for Eritrean independence and he is very gifted writer and journalist. No one knows his whereabouts for the last 7 years. With the exception of opposition voices outside the country, there is no one advocating for the rights of prisoners of conscience in Eritrea. It is imperative that the international community pressure the Eritrean government to abide by international norms. The voice of the international community is critically important in the case of Eritrea.

I appeal to the United Nations to apply pressure to the Eritrean regime to free all prisoners of conscience.

I also appeal to all UN Member States and Organization to take the following steps to assist political prisoners and their family members:

1. To put diplomatic pressure to Eritrea to abide by international rules.

2. To make aid funds conditional on the state of human rights in Eritrea.
3. Adopt a travel ban against the top officials of the regime from traveling.
4. Support Eritrean civic and media organizations that are fighting on behalf of prisoners of conscience, justice and democracy.
5. Support legal programs to help families/victims of prosecution to pursue legal actions against the Eritrean regime.
6. Find ways to assist families whose bread earners are jailed.
7. There are many Eritreans that are risking their life to cross the boarder (cross the boarder is subject to death penalty- shooting squad) and seeking refugees in neighboring countries. These refugees are in dire need of assistance such as food, clothing and other basic necessities.
8. Find way to give the youth in the refugee camps in Ethiopia and Sudan an opportunity to have a decent life through education, job training and resettlement programs.

The UN is the main organization that has a moral and legal obligation to address the plight of Eritrean prisoners. Eritrean prisoners of conscience, some of whom have been languishing in jail for more than a decade, must not be forgotten. I plead to the UN to use all available resources to help these voiceless prisoners.

Finally, I urge the UN to demand the Eritrean regime to allow the ICRC to visit the Prisoners of conscience in Eritrea and report on their general conditions and ascertain if they are still alive. Rumors are abound stating that some of the prisoners might be dead. With no visitation rights – or any sort of communication –the families of prisoners are living in a never-ending state of anxiety. Only the ICRC can determine the prisoners’ state.




Released on July 25, 2008

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