Lawmakers 'adopt' prisoners in human rights push

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill are teaming up to bring the plight of human rights defenders to light by adopting prisoners of conscience from around the world.

Twenty-one House members have agreed to sponsor a total of 19 imprisoned human rights defenders from Iran, China and other repressive countries. The photos can be seen here.

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The growing interest comes amid concerns that promoting democracy has taken a back seat to trade, counter-terrorism and other priorities over the past two decades.

“This was what was done by the Congress and by the Reagan Administration during the 1980s,” Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, told The Hill. “Every time Secretary [of State George] Shultz would go to Moscow, he would meet with the families of the dissidents at the American embassy.”

 Wolf and his Democratic co-chairman, Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), hope to replicate a time before the end of the Cold War when Soviet dissidents were almost household names. They launched the adoption program in December 2012 in conjunction with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and Amnesty International USA.

“One day that a prisoner of conscience is imprisoned is one day too long,” said Robert George, the chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. “The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom looks forward to continuing to work with the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and Members of Congress on the Defending Freedom Project to shine a light on those imprisoned around the world for their beliefs.”

George said he hoped the Lantos commission's first hearing of the new year, held on Thursday, would “invigorate” the effort and “attract new interest in it.” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Democratic leadership, became the latest member to join the program when he adopted imprisoned Vietnamese labor organizer Do Thi Minh Hahn after her mother testified at Thursday's hearing.

Lawmakers who adopt prisoners commit to using their clout to fight for their release. This can include floor speeches and sponsoring legislation, organizing town meetings and vigils in their districts, and pressuring the White House and State Department to make prisoners a priority.

Wolf for example has repeatedly called on Secretary of State John Kerry to meet with the parents of the Chinese human rights lawyer he has adopted, Gao Zhisheng, so far to no avail. He believes getting more lawmakers involved in the program will eventually force the Obama administration's hand. 

“If Kerry took 10 minutes out of his schedule and there was a picture taken of him with Gao's wife, do you know what that would do to the [U.S.] embassy in Beijing?” Wolf said. “It would be like an edict – this is an issue that we care about. Do you know what that would do to the Chinese government?”

Some prisoners have been more popular than others. No fewer than four lawmakers – Reps. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Raul Labrador (R-Idaho) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) – have all adopted Saaed Abedini, a dual U.S.-Iranian citizen sentenced to eight years in prison for practicing his Christian faith.

Iran, China and Vietnam top the list, with five adopted prisoners each. But lawmakers have also been willing to confront U.S. allies: McGovern and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) have adopted prisoners from Bahrain. Others have adopted prisoners in India and Pakistan.

Rep. Lynn Jenkins (R-Kansas) is the only lawmaker to adopt two prisoners, both of them targets of religious persecution: Uighur Christian Alimujiang Yimiti in China and Baha'i leader Saeid Rezaie in Iran. 

Wolf said he's seen first-hand the positive impact of adopting prisoners.

“I've had prisoners tell me that when people adopt them, it improves their life in prison. The warden is a little worried because he sees all of this interest coming in and makes sure the person isn't beaten up or makes sure the person gets the necessary food,” he said. “We literally hold a key to the jail cells.”