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Freedom Notes

Zineb El Rhazoui in London last year (Nano GoleSorkh / Wikimedia Commons)

Zineb El Rhazoui is a Moroccan journalist who works for Charlie Hebdo. She was absent on the day of the massacre (January 7, 2015). The Jihad wants dearly to kill her. I interviewed her at the Oslo Freedom Forum in 2015 and wrote about her here.

At this year’s Freedom Forum, last week, I saw her and asked how she was doing. She shrugged a bit and said, “I’m doing better than those who want to kill me.” So glad to hear.

One of the speakers at the Freedom Forum this year was Farida Nabourema, who works for democracy in her home country of Togo, which has been under dictatorship for generations. Gnassingbé Eyadéma ruled for almost 40 years. Now the dictator is his son, of course.

Farida told an interesting story about the old dictator — one that will remind you of Stalin. Four times a day, people had to line up and clap for the dictator. They had to line the route between the presidential palace and the presidential office. They had to clap for the convoy in the morning, when the dictator left for the office; at noon, when he returned to the palace for lunch; at 2, when he went back to the office; and in the evening when he returned home. If you were caught not clapping, or if you stopped clapping too early, you could be arrested and killed.

Joe (Stalin) would smile.

“Chito” Gascon is a human-rights leader in the Philippines — whose president is Duterte. Here is a statement from Gascon: “The strongman rises, carried to power and propped up by a wave of popular support, driven by a perception of decisiveness, fueled by tough talk and a post-truth narrative, with a readiness to undertake quick fixes or make undemocratic shortcuts. . . . This is a challenge today in my country and elsewhere — especially in places with weak institutions that are unable to ensure separation of powers.”

You will remember Ji Seong-ho — the North Korean who made a spectacular escape from his country, traveling much of the way on crutches. He is a regular attendee at the Freedom Forum. President Trump honored him at the State of the Union address in January. I saw Seong-ho in Oslo last week, and he wore his big, bright smile, as usual. He projects an air of ebullience. I can’t help thinking he is happy to be alive.

Park Yeon-mi is another North Korean defector (who had an equally spectacular escape). I interviewed her in 2014: “Witness from Hell.” She was in Oslo last week, and she told the assemblage something like this: “I had a hard time trusting people, when I left North Korea. In North Korea, it was dangerous to trust anyone. When I was free, my friends would tell me they loved me, and I wondered why. I couldn’t do anything for them.”

I thought of Irina Bitkov, who, along with her husband and daughter, has been imprisoned in Guatemala. I wrote about their case here. When I visited the Bitkovs in April, Irina marveled at the people who were helping her family: outsiders, strangers. “We are not their fellow citizens. We can’t do anything for them. They are helping us simply because we are human beings.”

On Wednesday, I jotted an update of the Bitkovs’ case. Yesterday, Irina and Anastasia were released to a form of house arrest. Igor had already been given such a release. The family, which includes six-year-old Vladimir, has been reunited for the first time in more than three years.


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