Natan Sharansky, who languished in a Soviet prison for nine years just because he requested an exit visa to Israel, joined the parents and spouses of political prisoners currently held throughout the world in urging the U.S. Congress to speak of their loved ones during all international political meetings.
While in jail, Sharansky remembered being told, “You are in our hands. If you disappear, no one will notice.”
That is why, Sharansky said Jan. 16 before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission hearing, it is so important to make sure every country holding political or religious prisoners is reminded constantly that the world knows.
Sharansky said the world never forgot him. Instead, people sent letters, attended marches and wore bracelets in support of Jewish refuseniks, and that is why Sharansky, who is currently chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, believes he was finally freed.
Keeping these prisoners in the news is key, he said, as he urged members of Congress to speak of specific prisoners whenever meeting with the leaders of the country in which they are imprisoned. Sharansky and several others testified how important they believe it is for U.S. ambassadors to frequently ask about the fate of any political prisoners in that foreign country and hold a press conference whenever they are denied the right to meet with that prisoner.
Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who sits on the Lantos commission, agreed with the importance of keeping prisoners’ names in the news. However, he said, “We are the legislative branch. We are not the face of this country’s foreign policy.” He therefore urged the family members who attended the hearing to carry their message to the State Department and the Obama administration.
Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), co-chair of the Lantos commission, praised family members for speaking out. “Those in the world who prefer silence should hear our voices around the world.”
During the nearly three-hour hearing, the wife of a man imprisoned in China, the mother of a young woman serving time in Vietnam and an attorney for a prisoner in Bahrain spoke of beatings, lack of medical care, inadequate nutrition and solitary confinement, often barely holding back their tears. They told of the anguish of going for weeks or months without knowing if their loved one was alive or where he or she was imprisoned.
Their relatives are being punished for the things people in the United States take for granted like writing a newspaper article, trying to organize workers or practicing their religion, they testified.
Commission co-chair Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) suggested that those working to free political and religious prisoners use Gal Beckerman’s book, When They Come for us We’ll be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry, as a model for activism.
“If you think the Congress and the administration will save you, you are sadly mistaken,” Wolf said, explaining that a groundswell of support worldwide is what is needed.
Beckerman, who also testified during the hearing at the Capitol Visitor’s Center, said the Soviet Jewry movement was successful because it combined “a tribal motivation” to help one’s own people with a general sense of outrage that someone was being imprisoned for their beliefs.
Robert George, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and a Princeton University professor, said a country’s well-being often is reflected in how it treats its citizens. Governments that deny religious freedom “are mired in poverty and insecurity” and tend to be home to radical violent extremists.
He urged the United States government to create a list of political and religious prisoners, something this country is obligated to do by law, he said. The U.S. should fill the currently vacant post of ambassador for religious freedom, he noted, adding that quiet diplomacy is good but never enough.
“Even the worst regimes care about their images. It is very important to speak out,” George stressed.
Countries holding political and religious prisoners that were discussed at the hearing include Bahrain, China, Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.
“Political prisoners are the ones who push back, and they are the ones, if we listen to them, they show the way to peace,” said Smith.