Politics & Policy

Oslo Journal, Part VI

Mikhail Khodorkovsky (Brendan Hoffman/Getty)

Editor’s Note: The Oslo Freedom Forum took place in the week of October 19. OFF is the annual human-rights gathering in the Norwegian capital. The previous parts of Jay Nordlinger’s journal are at the following links: I, II, III, IV, and V.

I have mentioned this in previous Oslo journals, but will again: The FDR statue in this capital? It looks nothing like the man. I’m sorry, but it just doesn’t. It looks no more like FDR than it does Mickey Mouse. But it’s the thought that counts.

And I won’t pick on this statue again (I’m pretty sure).

But let me say this — something I’ve also said before: The Lincoln memorial in the Vigeland sculpture park is one of my favorite Lincoln memorials anywhere . . .

‐Outside the Nye Theater, where the Freedom Forum is taking place, a man is handing out pamphlets, sounding the alarm about organ harvesting in China: the harvesting of organs from political prisoners, particularly of Falun Gong practitioners.

If the world knew about this practice — knew to a greater extent than it does now — would it care? Or would it go merrily about relations with the PRC as usual? (I’m not sure that anything could stir the world’s lethargy about China.)

‐There is a comedian here at the forum, who gave a performance last night, and does again, onstage at the Nye. His name is Wonho Chung, and he has an unusual background: He is the son of a South Korean father and a Vietnamese mother. He was born in Jeddah, and grew up in Jordan. Thus, his native language is Arabic.

And that constitutes much of his act, as far as I can tell: His jokes are based on the unlikelihood of his being a native Arabic speaker. Some of the jokes are very funny. Some of them are — well, Chung milks his theme, which I can’t really blame him for. It’s a damn good theme.

I’ll relate a funny joke: A guy comes up to Chung at a wedding reception, drunk. He says to Chung, incredulously, “You speak Arabic?” Chung responds with a flurry of Arabic. Wide-eyed, the man exclaims, “Oh, my goodness! When I’m drunk, I can understand Korean!”

Tell you something else: Chung does imitations of Indian, Chinese, and other accents in English. They are very funny. In America, I believe, they would be absolutely verboten. They are highly politically incorrect.

And, again, funny. I look forward to hearing Wonho Chung again, sometime, somewhere.

‐I have mentioned Marina Nemat before. She is onstage before us. She is the Iranian, long resident in Canada, who was a political prisoner when she was a teen. If she goes back to Iran, she says, “they will shoot me.” She’s as matter-of-fact as that.

When she was 15, she had the temerity to ask her calculus teacher to teach math rather than religious propaganda. She was reported. She was thrown into Evin Prison, tortured, and raped. “I broke under torture,” she says. “Everything they gave me to sign, I signed. I would have confessed to anything.”

She says, “There were thousands of us in Evin Prison. Ninety percent of the prisoners were under the age of 20. It was the high school from hell.”

In Iran, she explains, a woman who is raped is dishonored. The victim is not allowed to speak. “But guess what?” says Marina. “I’m here, and I speak.” The crowd cheers loudly.

‐Next at the podium is Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Russian oligarch, or ex-oligarch. Putin threw him in prison for ten years: from 2003 to 2013. For a while, I was unsure whether to accept him as a genuine political prisoner. Then I was convinced that he was.

He tells us he will not speak about his own case today. Rather, he will speak of others’. He begins by showing us pictures of the Prague Spring in 1968. Scrawled in a window are the words (in English) “SSR, Go Home.”

After the Soviets invaded and subdued Czechoslovakia, there was a protest in Red Square. There really was. On August 25, 1968, seven unbelievably brave Russians unfurled banners, protesting the invasion. They were arrested for an “anti-Soviet” activity. The charge was true, in a sense.

Khodorkovsky then moves to May 6, 2012, in another square in Moscow: Bolotnaya. Putin was set to have his third inauguration the next day. Over 50,000 people massed in Bolotnaya Square, protesting rigged elections, asking for democracy. The government cracked down on them, hard.

Khodorkovsky shows footage. The police are beating the hell out of the protesters, making them bleed, breaking their bones. I don’t know why the police don’t simply cart the people off to jail. Must they bludgeon them first? I guess so.

Khodorkovsky talks about specific, individual cases: those of these protesters and political prisoners. Their cases are mystifying and maddening. I’m glad to know about them. I had been only vaguely aware of these prisoners.

As our speaker points out, they are not, by and large, hardened political animals. They are ordinary, patriotic citizens who peacefully asked for free and fair elections. They were bewildered when their faces were smashed and they were tossed into prison.

On this matter of individual cases, rather than general principles or facts or notions, allow me to excerpt my history of the Nobel Peace Prize. Andrei Sakharov, the great Soviet dissident, was awarded the prize in 1975. The government did not let him out of the country to attend the ceremony here in Oslo. But he wrote a lecture, and his wife, Elena Bonner, read it for him.

Near the end of it,

he did something stunning: He named names — names of political prisoners held in his country. What is most encouraging to such prisoners is to be remembered, talked about; what is most discouraging is to be forgotten, to suffer in oblivion. Sakharov, through his wife, said, “Here are some of the names that are known to me.” Then he began, “Plyush, Bukovsky, Glusman, Moros, Maria Semyonova, Nadeshda Svetlishnaya . . .” He named about a hundred names, concluding with, “and many, many others.” In a 2010 letter to me, Bonner said that “the listing of names brought joy to the prisoners of conscience, and to their relatives. More important, it somewhat protected them from the camp administration. Besides, listing specific people, and caring about a particular person, as opposed to general arguments about human rights, fulfilled a most important inner need for Sakharov.”

(Serving as translator between Elena Bonner and me, by the way, was Ignat Solzhenitsyn, middle son of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.)

‐I may have mentioned earlier in this journal that there are two North Korean defectors, or escapees, here. They are both young women: Yeonmi Park and Hyeonseo Lee. It is now Hyeonseo’s turn at the podium.

“From the moment I was born,” she says, “I was fed propaganda.” (I am paraphrasing here.) The ruling Kims were not only the people’s protectors against “imperial forces”; they were gods. Hyeonseo did not even believe that Kim Il-sung went to the bathroom. “Not until his funeral did I realize he was even human.”

She speaks of death — murder — all around her. She saw her first public execution when she was seven. “I was stunned, seeing a man hanging from a bridge.”

I wish you could hear every word of this woman’s story, ladies and gentlemen. Let me give you a link from the Web, please: It is of another talk that Hyeonseo gave, in February of last year. You may want to reserve time for it. It’s about twelve minutes long.

I’m not sure I’ve ever met a braver person than Hyeonseo Lee. I’m not sure I’ve met anyone whose devotion to family was stronger. An amazing person.

‐The next speaker begins by showing us an arresting image — a creepy image. It is of a typical Norwegian man and a typical Norwegian girl. They are dressed in native dress (as I remember). They appear to be a couple. But the man is 37 (the speaker tells us) and the girl is 12.

The picture has been gotten up for this presentation, in order to make a point. The speaker is Shorna Shahida Akter, a Bangladeshi campaigner against child marriage.

She herself was to be a child bride. “I told my father it was wrong to marry off a child. I told my mother I would pay for my own schooling by tutoring. I finally convinced them not to sell me into marriage.

“I felt lucky that I managed to stop my child marriage. No girl should experience forced marriage. I have since saved four more girls.”

The audience applauds heartily.

Shorna tells us about a girl of ten who was forced to marry her cousin, who was 16. The girl gave birth when she was 13, if I have heard correctly. She is shown on video saying, “I wasn’t able to finish school, but I want to be sure my daughter does.”

‐Let me end this installment with something lighter. Lemme see what I got: Okay.

I have mentioned, I think, that I’ve been mistaken a couple of times for Norwegian. Out and about, I see a Statoil truck. And that gets me to thinking, “If I really were Norwegian, would I be eligible for some serious oil revenue?”

As it is, I’ll have to make my own money. See you soon (tomorrow).

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