Raising awareness

Human Rights Congressmen issue call to action on behalf of prisoners of conscience, including one of WORLD's 2012 Daniels of the Year | J.C. Derrick

Raising awareness

Gao Zhisheng is shown here in his Beijing law office in 2005.
AFP/Getty Images/Photo by Verna Yu

WASHINGTON—Two congressmen and three human rights groups have joined forces on a new initiative aimed at helping prisoners of conscience around the world.

Reps. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and James McGovern, D-Mass., co-chairs of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC), announced Thursday the Defending Freedoms project, a program through which members of Congress will “adopt” a foreign prisoner incarcerated for exercising freedom of speech or religion. The congressmen and -women will advocate on the prisoner’s behalf, writing letters, making visits, and issuing public calls for the person’s release.

McGovern has adopted Nabeel Rajab, a human rights activist from Bahrain. Wolf adopted Gao Zhisheng, a Chinese dissident who is one of WORLD’s Daniels of the Year (see “Remember those who are in prison,” by Jamie Dean, from the Dec. 15 issue). Gao, a Christian attorney, is imprisoned at a remote location in western China, paying a high price for speaking out against the Communist Party and its cruel practices. Wolf said Gao’s wife, Geng He, whom WORLD interviewed for the cover story, was invited to attend the press conference but couldn’t make the trip from her northern California home.

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Wolf encouraged those in attendance to contact their representatives and urge them to adopt someone wrongly imprisoned. “Their lives get better when people advocate for them,” he said, adding that he knows of prisoners who have been given more food, visits, and care when members of Congress sent letters on their behalf.

The TLHRC has formed a partnership with Amnesty International and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on the adoption effort. The groups have set a goal of 300 members of Congress adopting a prisoner of conscience by the end of spring 2013.

“Every mile you travel farther away from the Beltway, the clout of members of Congress seems to grow,” said Frank Jannuzi, the deputy executive director of Amnesty International. Jannuzi emphasized that the letters and attention matter, not only so that prisoners know they’re not forgotten, but also to hold accountable foreign governments that are violating “universal human rights embraced by all.”

Wolf, who took office in 1981, said prisoners of conscience received much more support during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He lamented the fact that recent administrations have largely turned a blind eye to human rights violations. He said it shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

Both Wolf and McGovern served in the House with the late Rep. Tom Lantos, the TLHRC’s namesake who was the only Holocaust survivor elected to Congress. Lantos’ widow, Annette, and his daughter, Katrina Lantos Swett, also spoke at Thursday’s press conference. Lantos Swett, who chairs the USCIRF, said the Defending Freedoms project would serve as a continuing legacy of her father’s efforts to advance human rights.

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