Courageous Voices: Speaking Out for Prisoners of ConscienceT. 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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Remarks by Ausama MonajedThank 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.”
Remarks by Aung Din
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.
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