At this last week’s San Fransisco Freedom Forum, participants received shock and awe from every single one of the speakers over the course of the one-day event. In fact the entire event was a shock and awe affair. “Shock” due to the very stark and horrifying realities than many of our human brethren endure in all too many countries around the world, and “awe” due to the amazing efforts made by so many activists who serve as beacons of light in the intimidating darkness of terrorism, dictatorship and despotism.
In all, 10 speakers were present to talk about a range of powerful issues, and the work many of them are doing to counter the effects of those peoples and governments that would create tyranny that one can hardly imagine. Here are the brief overviews of each of the speakers, and the topics they covered.
Russian chess legend and prominent international human rights activist, Mr. Kasparov, is a mainstay at the Oslo Freedom Forum. Currently the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation (HRF), Mr. Kasparov is an ardent advocate for human rights and democracy in Russia. As an outspoken critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Mr. Kasparov founded the United Civil Front to prevent Russia from again sliding into a totalitarian regime. In 2008, Mr. Kasparov challenged Putin in the presidential race as a candidate for The Other Russia, a pro-democracy coalition. Mr. Kasparov is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and other publications.
Shortly after the last presentation of the SFFF concluded, Our Times Editor, Matthew Classen, conducted a short interview with Mr. Kasparov. The contents of that interview can be read here.
A Chinese-Canadian actress, beauty pageant competitor, and human rights advocate, Ms. Lin was crowned Miss World Canada in 2015 and 2016. After 2015’s victory, Ms. Lin garnered international recognition after Chinese authorities declared her ‘persona non grata’, thus preventing her from competing in the Miss World contest in Hainan, China. The main topic of Ms. Lin’s presentation was how the Chinese government is forcibly harvesting the internal organs of imprisoned dissidents to supply transplant patients with an array of organ options at almost the snap of a finger. In Western countries, in order to get an organ transplant, a patient must be put on a waiting list and wait months for a suitable donor to appear, if at all. This begs the question: where are all the organs coming from, and with such speedy precision that supplies demand? Ms. Lin proclaims that through the Chinese authority’s own numbers, organs are being supplied, on an industrial scale, by tens of thousands of dissident prisoners (many of which include practitioners of the Falun Gong faith), as well as ethnic minorities from the Eastern provinces of China.
Rosa María Payá
Ms. Payá, daughter of renowned democracy activist Oswaldo Payá (who was killed in highly suspicious car accident in 2012), has become one of Cuba’s most vocal political dissidents in the wake of her father’s death. Ms. Payá reminded the conference attendees that just because the US embargo on Cuba is steadily easing, does not mean that the dictatorship is over and that the freedoms of press and democratic expression are restored with full vigor. To the contrary, the police state is alive and well in Cuba. In April 2014, directly before the commencement of the Summit of the Americas in Panama, Payá was detained in that country in what was described as a move of political intimidation. Currently, Payá serves as the President of the Latin American Network of Youth for Democracy, and is a member of the Cuba Decides campaign.
Mr. Sundram is a 2005 graduate from Yale University and is the author of “Bad News: Last Journalists in a Dictatorship” and “Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo.” As a journalist, Mr. Sundram has reported from unique places around the world, and covered events in Central Africa for the New York Times and the Associated Press. Additional credentials include internationally recognition for reporting on mineral exploitation and bad governance in the Congo, a Reuters journalism prize in 2006 for his coverage of Pygmy tribes in the Congo and winning a 2015 Frontline Club Award for his reporting of media repression in the Central African Republic. What Mr. Sundram spoke mostly about at SFFF was all the ways that a subtle dictatorship that is fully present in the Republic of Rwanda. Mr. Sundram gave clear examples of the suppression of political opposition groups, government intimidation of opposition groups, rampant restrictions on the freedom of speech and that current president, Paul Kagame, is seeking to change the country’s constitution to allow him to run for a third 7-year term.
Mr. Alhamza is the co-founder for Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS). RBSS formed as a way to use local activist journalism to bring to light the horrors being perpetrated against the population of Raqqa, Syria, by ISIS terrorists. RSSB utilizes existing social media to provide photos and videos that have been smuggled out of Syria to expose terrorist acts ISIS commits against local citizens for non-compliance with their laws. Mr. Alhamza presented a powerful video to SFFF attendees of actual public executions, as well as a collage of photos of his fellow journalists who have been killed as a result of their activities, both in Syria as well as abroad in supposedly safe countries. Information such as Mr. Alhamza presented has been used as on-the-ground illustrations of what life is like under ISIS by news organizations the world over. In fact, RBSS recently won the 2015 International Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Zineb El Rhazoui
Ms. El Rhazoui is a columnist for the now world renown magazine, Charlie Hebdo, a satirical publication that makes full use of the freedoms of the press on a variety of important issues. On January 7th, 2015, Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters was attacked by two brother wielding assault rifles, supposedly in response to Charlie’s publication of cartoons depicting the prophet Mohammed. Twelve people were brutally killed that day, including Charlie’s Publishing Director Charb.
Born in Morocco, Ms. El Rhazoui is a French human rights activist and a columnist. She has published numerous writings on the topic of religious minorities, which have been featured in the journal Le Journal Hebdomadaire, a publication that was banned by the Moroccan government in 2010. Ms. El Rhazoui is the co-founder of MALI, a pro-democracy, pro-secularism movement. After being arrested three times by the Moroccan government, supposedly due to her outspoken views and work, Ms. El Rhazoui was exiled and moved to Slovenia. Along with Charlie Hebdo editor’s Stéphane Charbonnier (who was killed during the assault on Charlie, Ms. El Rhazoui co-authored the comic book “The Life of Mohamed”. In 2015, Ms. El Rhazoui began receiving thousands of death threats from ISIS supporters. As a result, Ms. El Rhazoui is now shadowed with armed security wherever she goes, two of whom were eerily present throughout the SFFF events.
One of Afghanistan’s first CEO’s, tech entrepreneur Ms. Mahboob is the founder of Citadel Software, which is based in Herat, Afghanistan. Ms. also works to increase Afghani women’s technological literacy through the Digital Citizen’s Fund, a non-profit organization that seeks to prepare women for employment opportunities. In addition, Ms. Mahboob has created nine IT centers for girls in high schools across Afghanistan, with plans to expand programs to 40 schools. Should she achieve this goal, Ms. Mahboob’s endeavors will provide study opportunities for an estimated 160,000 women. Of course, a woman like Ms. Mahboob could not go unnoticed by groups like the Taliban. In the face of mounting death threats Ms. Mahboob left Afghanistan only to return in 2016. Due to her work, Ms. Mahboob was named one of TIME’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2013.
Born in North Korea, Ms. Lee Lee defected to China in 1997, where she lived alone for 10+ years. After this time she defected to South Korea before returning to North Korea yet again, this time to help her family escape to China. This escape lead Ms. Lee on a harrowing journey through China and SE Asia.
Ms. Lee has since written a book called The Girl with Seven Names: A North Korean Defector’s Story. This book is a New York Times Bestseller and has been described as “An extraordinary insight into life under one of the world’s most ruthless and secretive dictatorships – and the story of one woman’s terrifying struggle to avoid capture/repatriation and guide her family to freedom.”
Founder of Motley Legal Services and the co-founder of Motley Consulting International, Ms. Motley has worked on extraordinary legal cases in Afghanistan that have brought justice to victims of incredible brutality, often at the hands of family members. Ms. Motley told the story of Sahar, a a 12-year old girl living in a remote part of Afghanistan. Sahar was sold into slavery as a child bride to a 34-year old man and was subsequently forced to live with her new husband and in-laws. Once living with her new husband and in-laws, they wanted her to prostitute. When Sahar refused, she beaten, burned with hot metal rods, chained her to the basement of their home and starved her for months. At one point, the girl escaped to a neighbor’s house hoping to find sanctuary. That neighbor returned the girl to her family where she suffered even more abuse. Abused to within an inch of her life, the girl was rescued by her uncle. According to Ms. Motley, Sahar’s relatives were prosecuted and imprisoned for their crimes. However, they were soon released when media exposure subsided. Soon after, Ms. Motley, who was in Afghanistan to train defense attorneys, took on Sahar’s case in the pursuit of justice and became the first foreigner in Afghanistan to litigate in the Afghan courts. As she described it, Ms. Motley used Afghani laws creatively, and in a way never used before, to seek justice for Sahar. In front of the Supreme Court, Ms. Motley argued Sahar’s case. The result was a unanimous decision that the in-laws should be prosecuted for what they did to Sahar. They also unanimously decided that her husband and brother in-law should be prosecuted for having tortured and sold her.
Ms. Motley continues to take on cases in Afghanistan, and around the world, in the pursuit of what she calls “justness”, or the application of laws used for their intended purpose – to protect people from harm.
Ms. Marushevska hails from Ukraine and is a Ukrainian anti-corruption advocate. When anti-corruption protests broke out in Ukraine in 2014, authorities, with influence from Russia, began to violently crack down on protesters. In response to this, and in an effort to gain international scrutiny for the democratic movement to reform a corrupt government, Ms.Marushevska created a powerful video entitled “I Am A Ukrainian“. This video went viral and since then has been viewed almost 9 million times. As a result of this video, Ms. Marushevska has become an international spokesperson and has been featured on more than 70 media outlets in 35 countries worldwide.