New project allows Congress members to adopt conscience prisoners

Dr Katrina Lantos Swett speaks at a press conference to announce the Defending Freedoms project Dec 6 2012 Credit Michelle Bauman CNA CNA US Catholic News 12 6 12 Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett speaks at a Dec. 6, 2012 press conference to announce the Defending Freedoms project. | Michelle Bauman-CNA

A new initiative in the nation's capital invites members of Congress to "adopt" international prisoners of conscience to advocate for their release and to highlight the importance of human rights and religious liberty.

"We must shine a light on these prisoners of conscience until they are free," said Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, who chairs the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

At a Dec. 6 press conference, she explained that the Defending Freedoms project will encourage legislators to "stand in solidarity" with conscience prisoners, work for reform in their countries and send a message to the world about the importance of fundamental human freedoms.

Lantos Swett is the daughter of former Congressman Thomas P. Lantos, the namesake of the congressional Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, which is working with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and Amnesty International USA to spearhead the initiative. 
Annette Lantos, chair of the Lantos Foundation for Human Rights and Justice and widow of Tom Lantos, recalled how she and her late husband experienced persecution as young Jewish teenagers in Hungary during the Holocaust, escaping only through the compassionate aid of others.

This experience left her husband with a desire to speak out for those who are persecuted, work that is today continued through this new program, she said.

The Defending Freedoms project allows individual members of Congress to focus on individual prisoners of conscience, standing in solidarity with them, following their plight and publically advocating for their release. 

By "adopting" prisoners of conscience, lawmakers can increase attention and support for human rights and religious freedom on an international scale.

Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), co-chairman of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, said he hopes the project will "promote a new awareness of prisoners of conscience around the world."

"There are far too many brave people around the world who still languish in jail cells today simply because they are engaged in peaceful protest and exercising the rights to freedom of assembly and expression," he said.

Noting that a country is more likely to be politically and economically stable when basic human rights are respected, he urged his fellow lawmakers to "make sure that these prisoners of conscience are not forgotten."

"There is a tremendous opportunity to really make a difference," said Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who also co-chairs the commission.

He told stories of how members of Congress have been able to aid prisoners of conscience in the past and said he hopes to have 300 congressional participants in the program by the spring.

"To participate is more than just a letter," Wolf stressed, saying it means the lawmakers must "engage" in action. He suggested that legislators travel to the home countries of their adopted prisoners and ask to see them and their families as one means of taking steps to spread news of their plight.

Frank Jannuzi, head of the Washington, D.C. office of Amnesty International USA, praised the initiative as an example of the "bipartisan spirit in Washington" that can be so "powerful" when put into practice.

He called for the program to be a reminder of the larger battle for human dignity across the globe.

As the congressmen stand with these oppressed prisoners, he said, "we must also dedicate ourselves to addressing the underlying root causes of that oppression."

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