They came to Prague from around the world to share a vision of democracy and freedom. In this city of so much history and inspiration, an unprecedented conference was organized by Jose Maria Aznar, Vaclav Havel and Natan Sharansky entitled “Democracy and Security.” But its principal purpose, notwithstanding the stated title, was uniting dissidents who have committed themselves to a defense of freedom without the slightest regard for their personal safety.
In most instances these were ordinary people driven by historical events into extraordinary circumstances. Trapped by indifference and fear, they spoke out until the world finally listened.
Mudawi Ibrahim Adam is the founder and chairman of the Sudan Social Development Organization. For exposing the Sudanese government’s role in violations of human rights in Darfur, Dr. Mudawi was detained for seven months in 2004 and again in January 2005. During imprisonment, he went on a hunger strike to protest being held in solitary confinement without being charged or provided access to a lawyer, his family or medical attention.
Amir Abbas Fakhravar is an Iranian writer and student leader. He was arrested at 17 during a student demonstration against the Islamic dictatorship and suffered years of torture in jail, including the torture described by Amnesty International as “white torture.”
Saad Eddin Ibrahim is a professor of sociology at the American University in Cairo. In 2000 he was arrested after speaking out against autocratic government actions and sentenced to seven years imprisonment. In 2003 Egypt’s highest appeals court declared his trial improper and cleared him of all charges. Mr. Ibrahim has been one of the Arab world’s most vociferous defenders of democracy and human rights.
Garry Kasparov was the youngest world chess champion in history at the age of 22. Since 1989 he has been prominent in the nascent democratic opposition to the post Soviet autocracy. His organization, the United Civil Front, has staged marches of dissent against the policies of President Putin. Despite threats, he has remained firmly committed to genuine democratic reform in Russia.
Eli Khory, an advertising executive in Beirut, put his life on the line by planning and promoting the Cedar Revolution which drove Syrian troops from Lebanon.
Irina Krasovskaya is a Beloruisan political activist. In 1999 she lost her husband — who is still missing — after he opposed the brutal totalitarian practices of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. Mrs. Krasovskaya has lobbied governments relentlessly in order to have her husband’s case investigated.
Mohsen Sazegara is a teacher, writer and leading reformer against the current Iranian theocracy. In 2003 he was arrested by officers in the Ministry of Intelligence for his campaign against the ruling mullahs. During his imprisonment he endured two hunger strikes that totaled 79 days. In 2004, due to the deterioration of his health, he was released.
Natan Sharansky, the foremost proponent of democracy and arguably the most important human rights proponent on the globe, wrote a memoir Fear No Evil that serves as the bible for human rights advocates everywhere. Mr. Sharansky was born in the Ukraine, was arrested for Zionistic and human rights activities, and served nine years in a Soviet prison.
Vaclav Havel, the father of the Velvet Revolution in 1989 and the first president of the Czech Republic, was arrested and sent to prison by Communist officials because of his opposition to the totalitarian practices of Soviet invaders.
Eugeniusz Smolar is president of the Center for International Relations in Warsaw. In 1968 he was arrested for organizing pro-democracy protests and opposing the invasion of Warsaw Pact armies in Czechoslovakia. He was released from prison in 1970.
These are merely a few of the dissidents who came together to assert and, in most instances reassert, the power of human rights and freedom. They speak from experience. Moreover, their passion and desire to destroy totalitarian architectures was on display at every meeting.
On June 5th President Bush addressed this group. Powerfully and eloquently, he spoke of freedom’s march, recognizing as well that dictatorships are also on the march. Afterward, he met separately with dissidents, offering encouragement and a helping hand. After all, the Bush Doctrine to spread democracy as a force for freedom is dependent on the role of freedom fighters in dictatorial and theocratic regimes.
At the end of this moving and exultant conference each of us signed the Prague Document, which among other things recognizes the profound moral difference between free societies and fear societies and calls on governments to release non-violent political prisoners and on all democratic states to isolate and ostracize governments that threaten people with genocide and annihilation.
In a world that I sometimes believe is in a state of entropy, this conference restored my faith in human nature. Solzhenitsyn once said that even if the totalitarians covered the globe in cement a crack would emerge and from it a plant would grow. That plant has emerged full-blown as a Prague forest, offering the path to a free and democratic future.
Herbert London is president of Hudson Institute and professor emeritus of New York University. He is the author of Decade of Denial (Lexington Books, 2001).