Playing for Freedom

Wuilly Arteaga plays at a tribute to victims of violence in anti-government protests in Caracas, Venezuela, August 30, 2017. (Reuters photo: Andres Martinez Casares)
A gathering of dissidents in New York

A man comes up to me and says, “I see these signs that say ‘Oslo Freedom Forum.’ What is it? I’m from Oslo.”

The man is a tourist, 3,500 miles from home, and seeing signs that refer to his city. I explain that the Oslo Freedom Forum is a human-rights conference — a human-rights movement, if you will — that meets in Oslo yearly but is having a separate meeting here in New York.

It is early evening and we are on the Diller–Von Furstenberg Sundeck at the High Line, an elevated park on the west side of Manhattan. The Oslo Freedom Forum is having a reception, a party, before official events tomorrow.

‐I run into Ji Seong-ho, a phenomenally brave North Korean escapee. He speaks a bit of English. That is new! I compliment him on it. He says he is learning bit by bit. It is thrilling to see — to be acquainted with — someone who has endured and demonstrated so much.

‐Garry Kasparov is the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, the New York–based sister organization of the Oslo Freedom Forum. For many years, he was the world’s chess champion. Now he is an outstanding champion of freedom, democracy, and human rights.

He makes some remarks at the High Line party. He notes that the world’s dictators are meeting at the U.N. on the other side of Manhattan; but the dissidents are meeting here on the west side.

Why is it, he asks, that the dictators are always in the East and the democracies in the West? (He is kidding, of course — think of Cuba. But there is a point to his kidding: Kasparov was born and raised in the Soviet Union.)

He mentions Alexei Pichugin — one of Vladimir Putin’s political prisoners. Pichugin has been in prison longer than anyone else. Kasparov describes him interestingly: “Russia’s longest-held political prisoner of the century.”

Pichugin has been in prison, on trumped-up charges, under brutal conditions, for 14 years.

In the course of his remarks, Kasparov says that democracies have seen their institutions erode — they have seen themselves slide into dictatorship. No one is exempt. No country’s democracy is guaranteed.

He quotes “the wise words of Ronald Reagan,” to wit, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.”

About those living in the Free World, in relation to those living in the Unfree World, Kasparov says, “People who have the freedom and power to act have an obligation to do so.”

Clearly, Kasparov is living out what he regards as his obligation.

‐I have attended Oslo Freedom Forum events for years, and I notice a paradox: These events are so glam. Even Hollywood-like. And the subject matter is so horrific: torture, murder, all sorts of persecution.

An OFF staffer says something interesting to me: “These dissidents, these former political prisoners: They have been through such hell. And they will go through more. It’s nice to treat them like royalty for a couple of days.”

Ah, so true.

‐The next morning — the morning after the High Line party — OFF meets at Alice Tully Hall. This is a venue in Lincoln Center.

Tell you something funny: For 20 years, I have reviewed concerts at Alice Tully. For eight years, I have flown to Oslo to attend the Freedom Forum. How odd, this morning, to walk a few blocks to Tully and attend … the Oslo Freedom Forum.

It’s like two worlds colliding, or blending. Even the ushers are the same! I have seen some of them for (what seems like) the full 20 years I have been covering concerts at Tully.

‐Speaking of music: OFF’s day at Tully begins with some. It is supplied by Somi, a singer-songwriter from Champaign, Ill. She is accompanied by a guitarist — whose name goes unmentioned and unrecorded, I believe.

They are miked, which I find strange. In hundreds of concerts, I have never heard anyone miked in this hall. (That’s because I have never heard any non-classical music here.) It is completely unnecessary, amplification is. And distorting.

But I have been fighting this battle, losingly, for years. And Somi and her guitarist perform admirably. It’s a nice start to the day.

‐It occurs to me: These OFF meetings, some of them, are like church services. They are secular church services. We have had our opening hymn.

‐Thor Halvorssen, the founder of the Oslo Freedom Forum, and of the Human Rights Foundation, takes the stage. When democratic governments are indifferent to tyranny’s victims, he says, it falls on civil society to take notice and try to do something.

He says, “We are a group of people who believe that we are entitled to live free of government oppression.” Simple as that.

Halvorssen mentions three people who have spoken at OFF meetings past who are now in prison or under house arrest: Thich Quang Do, an elderly Buddhist leader in Vietnam; Leopoldo López, a democracy leader in Venezuela; and Anwar Ibrahim, the politician in Malaysia.

Just FYI, López is Halvorssen’s cousin, and phenomenally brave (as so many who are associated with the Freedom Forum are).

At the end of his remarks, Halvorssen brings up “the world’s largest dictatorship,” namely China. And he specifically brings up Liu Xiaobo, the writer, democracy leader, and political prisoner who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In July, the CCP effectively killed him.

Halvorssen asks for a moment of silence for him.

‐Next to speak is Marina Nemat, the Iranian dissident, long in exile (Canada). I have written about her before. She wrote a memoir, which you can find here.

From the stage, she says some things I never knew, or had forgotten. For instance, her father was an instructor in ballroom dancing. This was in Tehran.

The family had a place by the Caspian Sea. Little Marina wore a polka-dot bikini.

On Thursday nights, she watched the Donny & Marie show. (You remember the Osmonds?) On Friday nights, she watched Little House on the Prairie.

Then came the revolution — and away went dancing, singing, and other nice things. Marina joined some anti-government protests and wrote some anti-government things in the school newspaper. Then they came for her.

It was January 15, 1982. Marine was 16. The hour was 10 o’clock at night. She was in the bathroom. They thrust two guns in her face. She was taken to Evin Prison, one of the most infamous places in the world, and rightly so.

She weighed 90 pounds. They put handcuffs on her. Her hands slipped out of them. So they put both of her hands in one cuff. When they fastened it, one of her wrists cracked.

They tied her to a wooden bed. They took off her shoes and socks. They beat the soles of her feet with a length of cable.

“This is the most common method of torture in the Middle East,” says Marina. “You think you’re going to die. The pain disassembles your brain. I forgot how to count. I forgot how to pray.” Etc.

She was married off — “married” — to one of her interrogators. That’s so he could rape her, in accordance with the law.

Marina says that many of her friends were killed and buried in mass graves. She does not know where those graves are. But one day, she says, she will go back. “I will find the mass graves. I will crawl on my knees, if I have to. I will dig the dirt with my bare hands. I will make sure these young women, and young men, are remembered.”

‐Readers may well know Vladimir Kara-Murza, the Russian democracy leader. I interviewed and wrote about him at length earlier this year. Later, I did a podcast with him. Kara-Murza has survived two murder attempts against him — poisonings. And he is speaking at Alice Tully Hall.

He is making one of his favorite points, an important point. It goes roughly like this:

There are people who say that Russians aren’t ready for democracy and don’t need it. They need an iron hand with a whip in it. But this is untrue and defamatory.

In detail, Kara-Murza explains why.

He also mentions political prisoners — specific political prisoners. I think of Sakharov. His widow, Yelena Bonner, told me that it was very important to Sakharov to talk about specific people, specific prisoners. He did not care to talk about human rights in general or in the abstract. You need to put faces and bodies with the subject. Real cases, real lives.

Kara-Murza names Oleg Sentsov, Darya Polyudova, Dmitri Buchenkov, Oleg Navalny, and Alexei Pichugin.

As a rule, the Kremlin is too smart to imprison people for what they believe or express — I mean, to do it explicitly. They trump up charges against them: murder, theft, child porn, a whole array.

Kara-Murza also mentions his dearest friend, Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader in Russia. He was murdered in 2015 — shot in the back five times as he crossed a bridge 200 yards from the Kremlin wall.

“When all else fails — the smears, the threats — they use bullets as their final argument.” This is what Kara-Murza says.

He also says, “You will not see us run. You will not see us hide. You will not see us give up.” Russian democrats do not want outside help, he says. “We have to achieve democracy on our own.” But he does ask for help in this sense: “I say to you in the West, stay true to your values. Stop supporting Putin.” Stop making it easy for him. Stop welcoming him into the circle of legitimate leaders.

Also: “Stop falling for the line that we Russians are unsuited to, or unready for, freedom.”

‐Kara-Murza survived poisonings. Viktor Yushchenko, the former Ukrainian president, survived one, too. As with Kara-Murza, they almost killed him. Yushchenko’s face was hideously disfigured. (I remember seeing it in Davos.) I see him at lunch today: handsome, serene, determined. (Frankly, he was that way at his most disfigured. He set an unforgettable example.)

‐Wuilly Arteaga is the violinist. The Venezuelan violinist. The one who was playing peacefully in the streets, only to be arrested and brutalized. He is here, in New York, playing for us.

And playing very well.

Then he speaks (interpreted by Thor Halvorssen, who, despite his name, is Venezuelan). He says that Venezuela has been ravaged. Millions have been in the streets protesting. “They want nothing more and nothing less than freedom.”

And “I played my violin for peace and freedom.”

He relates that he comes from a humble family — one that prohibited him from going to school. He did have access to the Internet, however. “That’s how I learned everything I know: from the Internet.” And “I learned to play the violin by watching YouTube.”

A kid named Armando Cañizales was a friend of his. A fellow musician. He was murdered during a protest. He played in El Sistema, the famous system of youth orchestras. Even though Armando was murdered, says Wuilly, the leaders of El Sistema continue to support the murderous regime.

This obviously scandalizes, pains, and outrages Wuilly Arteaga.

He played his violin in the streets in order to honor Armando and other victims. “In response, the government attacked me with tear gas and water cannons. They even beat me with my own violin.”

He was taken to prison. “I had to suffer many things. They beat me so hard — including with a metal pipe — that they left me deaf in my right ear. They lit my hair on fire. They raped a girl — a girl who had been protesting with me — in front of me.”

Wuilly says that he is lucky — “because many have not left prison. Some have been murdered.”

After his spoken remarks, he plays the violin again. And sings. About his country, and peace, and freedom.



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