This afternoon’s first panel, “Authoritarianism and Dissent” featured human rights defenders spanning all regions of the world. “These people are trying to affirm the right at the international level that everyone has the right to express themselves and promote their ideas with protection,” said panel moderator and Italian parliamentarian Matteo Mecacci. “Until these values are universal, we cannot sleep.”
Absent from the panel is Cuban dissident Nestor Rodriguez Lobaina, who was barred by the Cuban government from attending the Geneva Summit. An audio message by Lobaina was transmitted and played at the summit.
“I am not unique in Cuba, many victims have suffered more or similar situations. In 1991, totalitarianism collapsed in the countries of Eastern Europe. The government here was very nervous. Several soldiers broke into my home and accused me of state propaganda. They took me to one of the worst torture centers and subjected to intense interrogation. I spent 90 days in punishment cells. I was considered a dangerous person for society by the Cuban regime. Cuba is the largest prison camp in the Western world. I will continue to fight for the rights of all Cubans.”
The recent case of Cuban dissident Orlando Zapata has also brought international attention to Cuba. His tragic death followed an 83 day-fast protesting his treatment in prison. “I could see these events unfolding and that the Castro regime was not coming to a decision in his case. He was simply asking for his rights as a prisoner,” said the first speaker, Jose Gabriel Ramon Castillo, a Cuban dissident and former prisoner of conscience.
Drawing attention to several other cases, Castillo described the ongoing abuse of the over 300 political prisoners in Cuba. Over 50% of Cubans born after 1959 have been arrested and imprisoned at least once in their lives. Several prisoners have also begun hunger strikes, such as Guillermo Fernandez, whose picture Castillo presented. Fernandez is on hunger strike to demand Internet freedom in Cuba. “It’s thanks to that I’m alive and can be here to tell this to you,” Castillo said.
“I’d like to tell you situation of a country where there is no freedom and people have no future there. There are messages emerging from Cuba, we hear that it has a wonderful health and education system. That’s not the case; the regime has condemned its people to live in abject misery. So few people know.”
Donghyuk Shin, who escaped from the North Korean political prison where he was born, described the hardship of his childhood. “We could not stop working from the moment we woke up, we could not even dare to say we were sick, we had to rather die and continue to work. We prisoners were treated worse than animals. I realized all of North Korean society was not different from Hell. Human rights simply don’t exist.”Urging action, he said, “The prisoners of the camp have to stand up by themselves, but nevertheless, it is not possible because the prisoners can have such consciousness, so that is why I am here to ask you to support us.”
Burmese dissident Bo Kyi also called for the international community’s help. “The Internet situation is worse in Burma than in most countries. All the Internet cafes are watched by the intelligence agency. People cannot visit many websites. If someone were to check our website, they would be arrested and given 15 years.””We cannot see the rule of law. Anyone can be arrested at any time. Before 1988, we had never even heard of the words human rights and democracy. Many students have been killed, I witnessed that.”Bo Kyi was himself arrested for participation in the 1988 uprising but survived in prison and learned English.”
Even though I was in prison, I did not feel depressed, I continued my studies. They didn’t want me to continue to read or to think. That is the worst kind of psychological torture. I tried to survive, I had to survive. At prison, they tried to rob your dignity.””If we cannot change the political system, we cannot stop that kind of torture,” he said.
Human rights lawyer Tamara Suju described the “psychological terror perpetrated against the population” by the Hugo Chavez government. “All Venezuelans live in a state of insecurity and try to live day by day. Entire economic sectors and control of banks have destroyed the stability of the system. There are no independent institutions or separation of powers, the foundation of democracy.” Actions against the government have been fruitless, “it is worth remembering that the totalitarian system was rejected in a referendum that was presented to the President by a clear majority.”
However, “the National Assembly is not following constitutional laws and is intimidating any opposition. I have been accused by the National Assembly of treason, which can carry a sentence of 30 years in prison. I have been obliged to abandon my country, leave my children behind, and I don’t know if I can ever go back.””I hope that that one day we can all say free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, she said.”
Zimbabwean human rights lawyer, Dewa Mavhinga, described “repressive laws that prevent local journalists from practicing freely in Zimbabwe.” This, combined with a system of “economic controls and forcible takeover of farms used as tools of patronage to the military,” has created a state of “abusive” military authoritarianism. “The work of human rights defenders continues to be even more difficult now because conditions on the ground is not changing. The military regime is not relenting, and is only agreeing to allow opposition at the power-sharing table. This is the international view, and it is wrong. The military regime refuses to ensure that freedoms are allowed or that the opposition can work.”
Mavhinga described the use of violence to maintain power and coerce voters to support the military. Discussions for national elections in 2010 is looming but on the ground, “there have been no genuine reforms that could ensure Zimbabwe or the international community that a new culture of change or tolerance could take place.”