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Silence equals death

"Silence equals death" Continued...

Issue: "Crossing the Rubiocon," Aug. 14, 2010

The report also chronicled the missing: Julius Jia Zhiguo, an underground Catholic bishop arrested in March 2009; underground Catholic priests Zhang Li and Zhang Jianlin, detained by authorities in 2008; and Wu Qinjing, the bishop of Zhouzhi in Shaanxi Province, detained in 2007.

Human rights groups have chronicled other abuses in China, including the imprisonment of leaders of the Linfen Church in Shanxi Province. The U.S.-based ChinaAid reports that at least 10 leaders of the Christian church remain in prison and labor camps after their arrests last October.

Trouble began for the Linfen Church in September when some 400 officials and hired workers raided the church's construction site and severely injured more than 20 members. The church reported massive destruction by officials: destroyed buildings, looted property, smashed appliances, and destroyed personal belongings. ChinaAid reported that a mob reduced the church building to rubble.

Officials arrested church leaders on charges ranging from "disturbing the social order" to "unlawfully occupying agricultural land." A Chinese court sentenced pastor Yang Rongli to seven years in prison. The court sentenced four other leaders to sentences ranging from three years to five years and six months in prison. Officials sentenced five other leaders to two years of "re-education through labor." ChinaAid is assisting with appeals but reports that the process is moving slowly, and that prison conditions are worsening.

Freedom House-a human rights group in Washington-reported a string of human rights abuses by the Chinese government in its annual report and noted a troubling trend: "While these acts of repression are disturbing, so is the absence of protest from the democratic world."

The group noted that abuses of dissidents in the Soviet Union once drew widespread condemnation from international leaders: "China's current actions, by contrast, elicit little more than boilerplate criticism."

Human rights advocates have leveled similar charges against the Obama administration's approach to Iran. After hundreds of thousands of Iranian protesters poured into the streets of Tehran after dubious presidential elections last summer, Iranian officials violently cracked down, killing as many as 200 citizens and detaining as many as 4,000 demonstrators.

As the so-called "velvet revolution" unfolded, marking the largest outcry against the ruthless regime in 30 years, Obama was slow to voice support for dissidents, drawing criticism from human rights activists. The president said he wanted to avoid becoming a foil for Iranian forces in an internal conflict.

That conflict continued to unfold, and the U.S. State Department chronicled Iranian abuses in its 2009 report, despite the administration's restrained approach. The report cited a litany of severe Iranian abuses: "The government executed numerous persons for criminal convictions as juveniles and after unfair trials. Security forces were implicated in custodial deaths and the killings of elections protesters and other acts of politically motivated violence, including torture, beatings, and rape. . . . Authorities held political prisoners and intensified a crackdown against women's rights reformers, ethnic minority rights activists, student activists, and religious minorities."

In May, Freedom House condemned the execution of five more political prisoners and said dozens more are on death row. Golnaz Esfandiari-an Iranian journalist for Radio Free Europe-told the Heritage Foundation in June: "Iran today is a prison."

The Obama administration's reluctance to speak forcefully about human rights abuses in Iran is likely tied to efforts to persuade the regime to back off its development of nuclear weapons. So far, it isn't working: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remains defiant and continues development.

Jim Phillips-senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation-says that the administration's reluctance to address human rights abuses in Iran is "due to expediency and wishful thinking." He adds: "It undermines an opportunity to make it clear that we're on the side of the Iranian people."

Political considerations also likely undergird the administration's muted approach to human rights in other regimes: China holds a massive chunk of American debt and remains a key player in the global economy. Obama also promised an open-handed approach if harsh governments would unclench their fists. So far, fists remain clenched in regions around the world, including parts of Africa, Russia, Asia, and the Middle East.

Human rights activists say that speaking publicly about specific cases-and offering assistance to pro-democracy groups in oppressed countries-bolsters beleaguered dissidents and strengthens America's ability to continue to advocate for justice in severe cases of abuse.

In a July speech in the U.S. House, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., called for the Obama administration to "find its voice" on human rights, and said he recently met with two human rights lawyers visiting the United States for legal training: "The lawyers said quite pointedly that their lives improve, and those of their cohorts in prison or facing pressure by the Chinese government, when the West speaks out for their plight and raises their cases by name."

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