Portman Co-Chairs Senate Foreign Relations Committee Hearing, Hears How the U.S. Can Better Support Those Fighting Back Against Authoritarian Governments Around the World

September 22, 2022 | Press Releases

WASHINGTON, D.C. – At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, U.S. Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) heard testimony from several women, who at the risk of their own safety and the safety of their loved ones, continue to advocate against the authoritarian regimes in their countries. Senator Portman asked what more the United States could do to support those in authoritarian countries, like Cuba, Iran, China, etc. who are speaking out and fighting for democracy. The witnesses asked that the United States become more active in the fight for freedom abroad and suggested that the U.S. ensure access to information via the Internet so individuals could have access to the, free world. The witnesses also discussed efforts to increase sanctions on malign government officials and leaders which would then create hardships for both them and their families.

A transcript of Senator Portman’s opening statement and questioning can be found below. A video of Senator Portman’s opening remarks can be found here and a video of Senator Portman’s questioning can be found here.

Opening Statement:

“Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thanks for holding this very important hearing and for your strong statement you just made with regard to what is happening on the streets in Iran today, following the death of Masha Amini at the hands of the morality police. I look forward to talking more about that with our witnesses. According to Global Democracy Indexes, countries like Russia, China, Iran, Cuba, and others, are exporting their authoritarian models of government to other countries and eroding democracies around the world.  We’ve certainly seen this attempt in Ukraine. They’re doing it to undermine these democratic countries and the freedoms that they find offensive. But also, to strengthen their own countries. And as these authoritarian countries continue to oppress their citizens, it is often the women in those countries who suffer the greatest, as our witnesses will tell us today. It’s evident that we are at a critical point where democracies around the world are being tested. And the United States has a duty to continue to lead to ensure those who are speaking out against authoritarian regimes know that we have their back. They have our support. Before us today we have three brave women who have courageously stood up to speak out against their oppressive regimes in their home countries. Many of them have done this at great risk to themselves, to their families, to their friends. It can be difficult for Americans to comprehend what you have gone through. In the United States, we often take our freedoms for granted so the thought that someone would need to risk her life just to advocate for the basic rights that we enjoy here, is a foreign concept for many of us.

“Our first witness is Rosa Maria Paya Acevedo. After her father’s death in 2012, which was widely suspected to be the work of the Cuban government, Ms. Paya Started Cuba Decide, a grassroots organization to promote true democracy in Cuba. With her organization, she’s carried the torch of liberty from her father, to advocate for real democratic reform in a country that has not known democracy in decades. Before us today, we also have Jewher Ilham, an Uyghur rights champion and passionate advocate against forced labor. In 2013, Ms. Ilham was forced to watch her father be arrested and taken away by Chinese authorities in front of her. He was then given a life sentence on trumped-up charges and Ms. Ilham has dedicated her life since then for advocating for the rights of the Uyghur people. At just 28-years old, she testified before the UN General Assembly, has been published and quoted in numerous international media outlets, and in 2019, she delivered the key note address at The Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom. Finally, we have Roya Hakakian, an Iranian-American poet and strong advocate for the rights of the Iranian people. For 43 years, Iran has been under the oppressive rule of the Mullahs who have consistently instructed and denied the people’s basic rights including freedom of assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, and of course the right to choose their own leaders in a fair, democratic process. Ms. Hakakian has been such an advocate for these rights and she has even been targeted for it by Iranian government operatives here in the United States. Again, I’d like to thank these brave witnesses for being willing to discuss the important work they are doing on this issue and we look forward to hearing from each and every one of you. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.”

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Question and Answer:

Senator Portman: “Thank you, Mr. Chairman. Thanks to each of you for your powerful testimony. Ms. Hakakian, I know that the Chairman would have gotten to you if he had had more time, but I’m going to start with you to give you a chance to tell more about your story. We were told that after the regime’s morality police killed this young woman – 22-year old Mahsa Amini last week, and killed her for not wearing her headscarf in the proper way that widespread protests have broken out across the country. Protesting the regime and the oppression of citizens, particularly women. We have seen videos here in the United States of hundreds, maybe thousands of people protestors protesting. In a way, it’s very inspiring to see courageous women tearing off their headscarves and burning them as a sign of protest. Have you ever seen anything like this before in your experience? Do you think these protests will continue? Do they have sustainability, and will they have any impact on the regime if so?”

Ms. Roya Hakakian: “I have seen a lot of protests in Iran. There are ways in which this last round of protests are very different from anything before. One central way is that there is no negotiation with the regime anymore. In the past, there was the hope of a reformist movement or change. All that is done. In the past, the Supreme Leader would never be the target of the anger of the demonstrators. All that has changed. It is the very notion of the Supreme Leader that the people are objecting to and it is the foundation of the system that these demonstrators on the streets are targeting. These are the new features that we have almost never seen in previous demonstrations. Another thing that really makes clear how this has changed is that the people seem to be ready to take on the security forces and riot police that is attacking them on the street. In the past, the show of a few riot police would force people to run away. They would shoot and people would run away. And that has changed also. People are learning to come together to force them out of their cars and beating them in many videos that I’ve seen. I think this is a very important moment in some ways because women are at the forefront and the most important slogan as I mentioned is life, liberty, and woman. And this is another thing that not only brings this whole thing much closer to any democratic vision that I’ve seen articulated on these streets, but also I think a very important moment for the people in general.”

Senator Portman: “Just quickly, how can the U.S. play a constructive role here? Over the years as you said there have been protests, we have been told the more the United States government is viewed as being helpful the less helpful it is in effect. This needs to be homegrown. And it needs to be one which it is, which is totally unrelated to western powers of the United States. What’s your view on that? And what do you think if anything the United States and your other European, and for that matter Middle Eastern countries that want to try and be helpful – what else can people do?”

Ms. Roya Hakakian: “I think the time that we have made the argument that if the United States or Europe intervened in Iran then they would take the agency away from the nation. I think that is behind us. The nation is showing great urgency doing what they’re doing at the moment. So, the question is: What can be done? First of all, in a world where there is such advanced technology available, we have to make sure that the regime can’t shut down the Internet. It is a vital source of communication for the people within the country and access to the information beyond Iran. The regime easily, readily, shuts down the Internet, and that’s also a way for them to cut off the media from seeing what they’re doing on the ground, which is incredibly dangerous and terrifying. Another thing that I think ought to be done, and can be done is to create a strike fund. People are ready to do more, to sacrifice more, by going on nationwide strikes, but there are no labor unions in Iran and there is no other fund to replace the lost salaries, so the question is, can we set up this strike fund, to which, the demonstrators can go in order to sustain themselves while they’re striking in order to advance the cause. And lastly, people are identifying the very individuals who are attacking them on the streets, who have ordered the killings. Let’s make sure that these people are on the sanctions lists because nearly all of the leadership of the Iranian regime have homes, estates, and family in North America. And, you know, they come and go. Their children live here. I want to make sure, I think we want to make sure, that these individuals lose access to both rule in Iran and also their vacation time in our parts.”

Senator Portman: “Well, thank you. Those are all good suggestions. Ensuring the internet is as open as possible through various ways of the strike fund idea to give people some sense that they will have some way to feed their family should they choose to strike and then the sanctions on the broader basis, particularly on individuals who are involved. So many questions for all of you, but let me jump if I could to Ms. Paya Acevedo. Since 2014, the United States began normalizing relations with Cuba, as you know, and there is hope that re-engagement could have a positive effect. That there would be more freedom in Cuba and that somehow that would promote democratic change and more respect for human rights. I’m going to ask you your opinion as to whether you think that helped or not. And then assuming you do not think that it was very helpful, what else can and should be done from the U.S. perspective?”

Ms. Rosa Maria Paya Acevedo: “Thank you so much for that question. I think that more critical and louder than my opinion is the chanting of the people in the states. The Cuban people is not chanting the embargo, it’s chanting freedom. The Cuban people are demanding ‘libertad,’ ‘patria y vida,’ which is ‘homeland and life,’ and life is something that is repeated in the chanting. The citizens are demanding democracy because that’s the bottom of the issue is our lives, the ones that are right now, at stake. That is something the Cuban people know very well. My country is on the brink of a humanitarian tragedy. Mothers cannot feed their children. There are no medicines, no expendable materials. There is no oil, blackouts across the country. But when the people go into the streets, what we chant is freedom because we understand that that is the root of the issue. We understand that to get out of the humanitarian crisis, we need to get rid of the dictatorship and that is what you can help us with. And that is not an ask for you to do our job, no. The Cuban people have taken the highest possible risk, their own lives. But it’s also, by doing so, providing a huge opportunity to the democracies of the Americas, and especially of the U.S. To join that fight, to support that fight and I think that there are very specific actions that the administration and also using the tools that the Congress have created can put in place in order to support the Cuban people that by the way, that isn’t only supporting the Cuban people, it’s supporting peace and stability in the whole region. First, please stop any, any attempt for appeasement, instead demand the liberation of the political prisoners, the human rights conditions, from freedom of expression and association  to economic freedom. Second, make full use of the Magnitsky Act. Against the Díaz-Canel and all of the top officials, but also against the judges and the prosecutors that are sending young people to eight years in prison because they film a protest in the streets. Third, create an international effort. The United States, this country, is the one that is called to lead that effort for solidarity with the Cuban people. Creating a coalition of nations in support of the right to decide for the Cuban people. The holding of a binding plebiscite for us to be able to choose a change toward democracy because what we want is free and fair and multiparty elections that haven’t taken place in my country in more than 70 years.”

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