Politics & Policy

Oslo Journal, Part V

Ali Abdulemam

Editor’s Note: Last week, Jay Nordlinger attended the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights conference held in the Norwegian capital. The previous parts of his journal are at the following links: I, II, III, IV.

It is now Ali Abdulemam’s turn to speak. He hasn’t spoken in a long time — at least not publicly. Abdulemam is the Bahraini blogger and ex-political prisoner who has been in hiding for two years. This conference marks his reemergence.

He speaks about the climate of fear in Bahrain. If you sing an anti-government song — or even beat out its rhythm on your car horn — you face prison.

In the last two years, “more than 25 bloggers,” Abdulemam says, “have been arrested, tortured, and sentenced.” Journalists in general have been subjected to the same.

“Before going forward,” he says, “I have to warn you that I have some graphic pictures.” (I am paraphrasing Abdulemam’s remarks.) I’m not going to look at the pictures. As I said in this journal earlier, I believe the worst anyway.

Abdulemam speaks of a friend of his, Karim Fakhrawi, “who opened a bookstore near my house.” At the time, “I was young and thirsty to read. The first book I bought from my own pocket, I bought there.”

Fakhrawi was an oppositionist and patriot. “He had such a good heart,” says Abdulemam. “You just wanted to talk to him.” One day, the police came to get him. A week later, they told his family to collect him. He was a corpse. He had been tortured to death.

I can’t help sneaking a look at the pictures. I’m sorry I do. And I wonder: Why did they have to torture him to death? Wouldn’t locking him up and throwing away the key have been enough?

Abdulemam has yet more stories to tell — similar stories. And he says he is speaking out, working for democracy, because he doesn’t want his children to “grow up like I had to.” In that climate of fear.

#ad#Look, the United States needs allies, including in the Arab world, and I’m a realpolitiker (to a considerable degree). I know there is plenty of nose-holding in foreign policy. But damn it, I’m sick of allies who torture innocent people to death. Leave that to our enemies.

You know?

‐Peter Godwin is a well-known writer from Zimbabwe. He is articulate in the way graduates of Oxford and Cambridge are expected to be. (He studied at both universities — which is really gilding the lily.)

Interesting how he pronounces the name of his native country. Sounds like “Zimbabwee” to me.

Godwin notes that Mugabe is closing in on 90 years old, and has been in power for 33 years. That’s nothing: Fidel Castro has been on top — Raúl is a stand-in — 54 years. Mugabe is a rookie by comparison.

Castro is one of the longest-“serving” — longest-ruling — dictators in history.

Godwin speaks of torture, endless torture. He has seen “defensive injuries.” What are those? Well, when you put your arms up to ward off blows — from machetes, axes, and the like — you get injured. Your arms get pretty ground up.

If you’re the Zimbabwean government, you catch, torture, and release. The people you have tortured are “human billboards,” as Godwin says. Their message: Better not do anything to upset the government.

Violence has always been Mugabe’s modus operandi, says Godwin. It would be lovely to knock him off his perch. The Castros too.

‐Ah, speaking of them! There are, of course, demonstrators outside the Christiania Theater, demanding the release of “the Cuban Five.” You remember who this lovely quintet is, don’t you? They are the Castro agents who, after exquisitely democratic trials, were jailed in the United States.

In every free country, it seems, there are people willing to defend the cause of the Castros and Cuban Communism. Wish they had to live there — in the Castros’ Cuba, I mean.

Then again, they might make out rather well, like “Assata Shakur.”

‐Maryam Nayeb Yazdi is an Iranian-Canadian human-rights activist. Her topic here in Oslo is “Iran’s Weapon of Choice.” And that weapon? Execution. She says that capital punishment is the regime’s “main tool” for the spreading of fear.

She lists the capital-punishment countries: Iran, North Korea, China, and the United States.

I’m afraid I’ve never been able to accept this lumping in — and I am opposed to capital punishment. Iran, North Korea, and China execute untold numbers of innocent people. The United States executes the worst murderers after an exhaustive legal process.

Capital punishment may be wrong — but I have never been able to accept this lumping in.

Regardless, I think what Maryam Nayeb Yazdi is doing with her life is magnificent. (A quick aside: What is it about Iranian womanhood? If there ever came a time to pick a Miss Iran, what would the judges do? Point randomly in the streets?)

#page#‐Julio Borges is sporting a shiner. Why’s that? He is a Venezuelan politician, the co-founder of the Movimiento Primero Justicia, or the Justice First Movement. He is a member of the National Assembly. An opponent of the ruling party.

And they have beaten him up, right on the floor of the assembly. Three times, if I have heard him correctly. The latest attack was on April 30.

Borges gives a talk about Venezuela that appalls me. I knew Venezuela was bad; I am not an innocent where Chávez’s Venezuela is concerned (and it is still his country, in one sense). But I think it’s worse than I thought. Chávez had his clownish aspect, and so does the government that remains there. But these people are both clownish and brutal. They break bones and they kill.

They militarize the country, including children. Political violence is the atmosphere of chavismo. Venezuela has been semi-Castroized, in short — full Castroization being the goal of Chávez and his co-thugs.

Laugh at these clowns if you like, and I don’t blame you, but remember their thuggery: They have proven capable of much harm.

As I listen to Borges talk, I can’t help thinking of the American “liberals” — writing in the Washington Post, speaking on MSNBC — who eulogized Chávez. Who excused and praised him. I wish they had to live in today’s Venezuela. Then again, they might prosper . . .

#ad#‐There is an excellent Latin American contingent at this year’s forum, as there always is. Let me mention a few names.

Pedro Burelli is here. He is a Venezuelan-American businessman and political analyst, whose father was the foreign minister of Venezuela. Pedro is sharp, amiable, and commanding. Venezuela could really use him. Of course, so could the United States.

Robert and Ruth Bottome are here — an elegant couple from Caracas. They “still” live in Venezuela, as some of their friends say. Many Venezuelans have voted with their feet (going to Weston, Fla., for example — “Westonzuela”).

I am pleased to see, by his card, that Sr. Bottome has his office on Abraham Lincoln Avenue.

My fellow American, and one of my favorite people, Otto Reich, is here. He is the Cuban-born diplomat who served in the Reagan administration, the Bush 41 administration, and the Bush 43 administration. Among his positions was the ambassadorship to Venezuela.

Let me mention another friend of mine, Javier El-Hage, who works for the Human Rights Foundation (and for this forum). A Bolivian, he is a lawyer, economic scholar, activist, and bon vivant. What a combo.

Thor Halvorssen, the founder and leader of HRF and the Freedom Forum, is a Venezuelan — despite his Norwegian name, despite his overall Americanness (as I see it). He hears “Thor” three ways: in English, in Spanish (sounds like “Tor”), and in Norwegian (sounds like “Tur”). He answers to all of those.

‐Meron Estefanos speaks about Eritrea, her tortured country. You know what the thugs do? They capture a person, torture him, and phone his parents, so they can listen in. During the torture, they demand ransom.

‐A journalist from Angola, Rafael Marques de Morais, tells us about that country. Among other interesting things, he says that Africa has its first female billionaire: the daughter of the Angolan president.

Hmmm — wonder how she got so rich. Did she come up with some software, à la Bill Gates?

‐Let us pause to reflect on the name of that journalist: “Rafael Marques de Morais.” Music, of a sort.

‐Chee Soon Juan is familiar to readers of my column: He is the leader of the Singapore Democratic Party. He is an admirable and determined man. Speaking here in Oslo, he decries the various injustices of that small state.

I have no doubt he is right in everything he says. I also have no doubt that Singapore is one of the least oppressive places in all the world to live.

Not that it can’t, and shouldn’t, be made better — a lot better. All honor to Chee and our fellow democrats.

‐Our comedian, Aron Kader, is back for a little more standup. Such a talented fellow — in his voices, in his physicality, in everything, really.

But listen: He does a series of George W. Bush jokes. Seriously. Bush has been out of office for four years. Barack Obama has been in office for four, and has been reelected. He is mired in scandal.

And comedians are still doing Bush jokes. What a bizarre culture we have.

But I look forward to hearing Kader again, and I look forward to seeing you tomorrow. Thanks much.

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