On July 24, I was invited to attend President George W. Bush speech on his Freedom Agenda, an event hosted by USAID. Prior to the speech, and alongside a number of colleagues from Belarus, Cuba, Burma, Iran, North Korea, Sudan and Zimbabwe, we had a brief encounter with the President. One the most memorable aspect of the meeting was when the President whispered in my ear that he was sorry for not doing enough about Syria.
BIOGRAPHIES OF DEMOCRACY ACTIVISTS
The President met with the following democracy activists prior to his remarks.
Olga Kazulina (Belarus)
Olga Kazulina is the daughter of political prisoner and former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, who was arrested in March 2006 and sentenced to 5 1/2 years of imprisonment for his political actions against the Lukashenko regime. She is a member of the Social Democratic Party and the commission “Freedom for Kazulin and All Political Prisoners.” Ms. Kazulina was the deputy director of the firm Alaktiv from 2005 until 2007, when she was fired ostensibly for “unauthorized absence” for attending an opposition conference in Lithuania in July 2007.
U Gawsita (Burma)
U Gawsita is a Buddhist monk who founded the All Burma Monks Alliance and played a leadership role in and was beaten during the 2007 “Saffron Revolution.” He went into hiding during the brutal crackdown and finally fled to Thailand in December; he came to the United States as a refugee in March. He continues to work on behalf of freedom for Burma.
Blanca González (Cuba)
Blanca González is the mother of Normando Hernández González, a political prisoner suffering under the regime of Fidel and Raul Castro. Ms. González was a guest of Mrs. Bush at the 2008 State of the Union address. In 2002, Ms. González fled Cuba and applied for political asylum in the United States; she now resides in Miami, Florida, with her husband. While in Cuba, she was a human rights activist and was harassed by the Cuban regime. Her son, Normando Hernández González, is a writer and independent journalist and was arrested on March 18, 2003, in his hometown of Camagüey, Cuba. Hernández was sentenced to 25 years of imprisonment for reporting on the conditions of state-run services in Cuba and for criticizing the government’s management of issues such as tourism, agriculture, fishing, and cultural affairs.
Manouchehr Mohammadi (Iran)
Manouchehr Mohammadi is a prominent democracy activist who has been at the forefront of the student movement in Iran for over a decade. He has served as Secretary General of the National Association of Iranian Students and has helped organize a number of other student groups, including the National Union of Students and Graduates, the Organization of Iranian Intellectual Students, and the Students’ Defense Committee for Political Prisoners. He was sentenced to death by the Iranian regime for his involvement in the 1999 massive student uprisings; this sentence was later reduced to a 13- to 15-year jail term. After 7 years in Iran’s notorious Evin prison, where he was tortured and endured his brother Akbar’s death, Mr. Mohammadi escaped from Iran and entered the United States in 2006.
Cho Jin Hae (North Korea)
Cho Jin Hae was born in North Hamkyung province and lived with eight other family members. To avoid starvation Ms. Cho was forced to eat anything from mountain animals to tree bark. Her responsibility to provide food for her family prevented her from attending school. The acute food shortage caused all her family members except her mother and younger sister to starve to death. The three of them defected to China. She was granted asylum in the United States in March 2008.
Niemat Ahmadi (Sudan)
Niemat Ahmadi, a native of North Darfur who fled Darfur in 2005 after two assassination attempts, is the Darfur Liaison Officer at the Save Darfur Coalition. She promotes cooperation worldwide between the Coalition and the Darfuri diaspora. She is a founding member of the Darfuri Leaders Network, a coalition of 20 domestic Darfuri organizations working to promote peace and security in Darfur. Ms. Ahmadi focuses on the role of Darfuri women in the peace process.
Ammar Abdulhamid (Syria)
Ammar Abdulhamid was born in Syria to a well-known family of artists. He studied at the University of Wisconsin from 1986 to 1994, when he returned to Syria. In 2001, he founded the Tharwa Project, a U.S.-based non profit organization dedicated to improving relations between the different ethnic communities in the Middle East and North Africa. He and his family were forced out of Syria in September 2005 due to his increasing and vocal criticism of the regime. Abdulhamid served as a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution from 2004 to 2007. He continues his work on democracy and freedom for Syria as the director of the Tharwa Foundation (a follow-on group to his earlier Tharwa Project).
Fidelis Mudimu (Zimbabwe)
Fidelis Mudimu, a registered nurse, is the Program Manager for a major human rights organization in Zimbabwe that provides medical and psychological rehabilitation for victims of organized violence and torture. At great personal risk, Mr. Mudimu has regularly evacuated victims at risk to places of safety. He also helped to establish a network of ‘peace monitors’ throughout Zimbabwe who monitor violence and human rights abuses. Mr. Mudimu has represented the Zimbabwe Human Rights Community at various international meetings.
Primrose Matambanadzo (Zimbabwe)
Primrose Matambanadzo is the Coordinator for the Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR), an independent, non-partisan organization that assists victims of violence and torture and provides training on health and human rights issues. This April alone ZADHR evaluated well over 300 individuals who were physically assaulted by government and government-sponsored forces. Many of those who ZADHR evaluated had fractures, soft tissue injuries, hematomas, and falanga (an injury that originates from the severe beating of feet which can cause life-long disability). Ms. Matambanadzo is on the board of the Zimbabwe Human Rights NGO Forum and has served as the Spokesperson of the Crisis in Zimbabwe Coalition.