U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, made the following remarks yesterday at the National Endowment for Democracy's 10th Anniversary Celebration for the establishment of the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship Program. The Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship Program aids practitioners, scholars, and journalists to enhance their understanding of democracy and promote democracy programs around the world.
Statement by Ros-Lehtinen:
"I am honored to be here today to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellowship Program. This Program is named after two of my heroes. Dante Fascell, a great congressman from South Florida whom I regard as a mentor, was the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee when I first joined. He was committed to securing freedom and democracy for Cuba and the Cuban people and worked tirelessly to serve the Cuban-American community as well. Ronald Reagan was also an unwavering fighter for freedom in Cuba.
"As everyone here knows, for the past 53 years, the Cuban people have been denied their basic human rights by the brutal regime of the Castro brothers." Yet the brave people of Cuba fight on. One of those brave individuals is Normando Hernandez. Normando co-founded the Cuban Foundation for Human Rights and served as director of a group of independent journalists. Unfortunately, he paid a high price for his devotion to the cause of freedom.
"He was one of 75 journalists arrested during Cuba's Black Spring and was imprisoned for seven years in terrible conditions where he was denied adequate food, sanitation, and medical care. But his courage and strength allowed him to survive this great trial despite beatings, hospitalization, and inhumane conditions. Even after he was freed from prison and exiled to Spain in 2010, Normando continued to fight for a free press in Cuba. Now, during his fellowship, he is focusing his work on helping journalists promote democracy in countries like Cuba, where people and their ideas remain brutally repressed. Thank you, Normando, for your dedication and your work on behalf of freedom around the world.
"The 2004 "Orange Revolution' in Ukraine inspired great hope for democratic reform and freedom for its people. Unfortunately, eight years later, that hope has yet to be fully realized because elections are still not free and fair, the judiciary is controlled by the authorities, and the media remains shackled. This was demonstrated in the fall 2010 elections when widespread abuses were revealed by independent observers, including fraudulent voter lists, police intimidation, and phony ballots. It is therefore no surprise that Freedom House classifies Ukraine as only "Partly Free.'
"Myroslava Gongadze has experienced that oppression first hand. She also paid a high price for her pursuit of freedom. In the 1990's, she and her husband were prominent members of Ukraine's newly free press, devoting their efforts to investigating high-level government corruption and other forbidden subjects. Tragically, her husband was brutally murdered to silence him. Forced to flee to the U.S. for her safety and that of her family, she has continued to seek justice for her husband and promote press freedom in Ukraine. Her courage and persistence in the face of such tragedy is remarkable, and I hope that someday she will be able to return to a free Ukraine.
"For over 40 years, the Assad regime has brutalized the Syrian people. Human rights observers estimate that more than twelve thousand people have been killed by the regime since the beginning of the Syrian people's uprising last year. As appalling as that figure is, we know that the Assad regime has far more blood on its hands. Not only has the regime murdered countless thousands during the past decades, but it has also provided crucial support to violent extremist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah, who continue to kill innocents in other countries, including Americans and Israelis.
"The current uprising has finally brought the terrible situation in Syria to the world's attention, but even now few countries are assisting the embattled population even as the regime's brutality continues to grow. But former NED fellow Doctor Radwan Ziadeh has never suffered from illusions about the Assad regime. The regime has not only threatened him for his work to bring freedom to Syria but has also targeted members of his family. In fact, for many months, his brother has been held incommunicado by the regime, and his condition remains unknown.
"Yet the people of Syria still continue their struggle, and we in Congress are seeking to help them with more than just words. In fact, the Foreign Affairs Committee recently passed the Syrian Freedom Support Act, which I sponsored along with my friend Congressman Eliot Engel. This legislation toughens the existing sanctions on the regime and provides a framework for support to those supporting a democratic transition in Syria. We must continue to work together to end the Assad regime and begin the transition to freedom and democracy in Syria.
"With one of the largest standing armies in Africa, Ethiopia's relative strength and its cooperation in countering terrorism have led the U.S. government to view it as a key ally in the region. Nevertheless, we must not allow that cooperation to push aside the many concerns regarding human rights and the state of democracy in that country. The Ethiopian government has adopted laws that increasingly constrain the work of local NGOs. In an effort to deny its population access to independent information, it has often jammed Voice of America broadcasts. And Human Rights Watch has condemned the January 2012 conviction of several exiled journalists.
"But its actions against the political opposition are especially troubling, including one of its leaders, Birtukan Midekssa, who is here today. As a former federal judge and a leader of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, she has direct experience in the fight for democracy. Unfortunately, she also paid a high price and has direct experience of the harsh response from those in authority who fear her success. She was sentenced to life in prison in 2005 after her party won an unprecedented number of seats in parliamentary elections.
"She was eventually released, but was arrested again in December 2008 and again sentenced to life in prison. What was her crime? Amnesty International said that she had been "imprisoned solely for the peaceful exercise of her right to freedom of expression and association.' Thankfully, she has been released from prison and now chairs the Unity for Democracy and Justice Party, which she founded. Her unwavering efforts on behalf of democracy and human rights in her country are truly remarkable.
"So I thank all of you for your bravery, your sacrifice, and your faith. You inspire those of us who live in safety to cherish our freedom. You remind us of our responsibility to all those around the world confronting seemingly impossible odds who remain determined to free themselves, their families, and their long-suffering countries."