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Remember freedom’s cause

- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Publication of Ronald Reagan's diaries reveals a man who enjoyed golf, the Rose Parade and breaking in new jeans, was irritated by "cockamamie" lawyers and "dismal" briefings, watched "The Waltons" and "Cattle Queen of Montana," and adored his wife Nancy, better known as "Mommie."

Republican insiders are now poring over the entries like Jann Wenner leafing through Andy Warhol's diaries.

But the book also reveals one man's commitment to freedom and democracy, especially regarding the former Soviet Union. President Reagan in 1981 championed for Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, languishing in one of Leonid Brezhnev's jails. "This is between the two of us," Mr. Reagan wrote. "I will not reveal that I made any such request." By 1986, a deal had been struck. Mr. Reagan wrote: "Last nite & this morning it was all over the news. I feared the publicity might queer the deal. Turns out the leak was from Moscow."

On Feb. 11, Mr. Sharansky was freed, as part of a so-called "spy swap" and rejoined his wife who had emigrated to Israel.

The consummate politician, Mr. Reagan also had a soft spot. When he finally met with the man he helped free, he listened raptly to the tale of years in a Soviet prison. Mr. Reagan learned he was a "hero in the Soviet Gulag " for his attacks against the repressive government.

Heroes are usually defined as ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances who do the right thing. Heroes are also made in prison (Nelson Mandela) and in martyrdom. Mr. Reagan was a hero to the Soviet dissidents, for his steadfast support. If only he were alive today.

According to Human Rights Watch, no one knows how many Iranian prisoners are held in jails or unknown numbers of secret detention centers. Abuse and torture of dissidents has increased in the solitary cells of Tehran's Evin Prison, the most infamous jail in the country.

Recently, Iran confirmed it had arrested a prominent Iranian-American academic on May 7, accused of trying to start a revolution inside Iran. Haleh Esfandiari, 67, is the director of the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington. She traveled to Iran last year to visit her 93-year-old ailing mother. Barred from leaving the country for four months, she was sent to Evin Prison, where midnight blindfolded interrogations are guaranteed. One can only imagine the Iranian regime's desperation and paranoia.

Mrs. Esfandiari's husband, Shaul Bakhash, is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He called his wife "an advocate for diplomacy" and denied the country's charges. Congress last year approved $85 million to promote democratic institutions in Iran.

Scholars, filmmakers, writers and other highly educated Iranians living abroad are fearful of returning to their country and almost assuredly face accusations of treason and a jail cell in their name.

Mrs. Esfandiari, who had been living in the United States since 1980, taught history at Princeton and recited Persian poetry by heart. She reportedly had her luggage and passport stolen by masked man in a taxi en route to the airport when she tried to leave in December. A former American FBI agent disappeared in March after travelling to Iran's resort island of Kish.

In an opinion piece in the Los Angeles Times, Mr. Bakhash wrote: "It is easy to feel powerless in the face of a state's overweening power — especially a state that arrests, incarcerates and accuses its citizens at will... people have power when they condemn injustice and stand up for wronged individuals."

President George Bush's administration, which has inherited Mr. Reagan's office and his commitment to freedom and democracy, and the U.S. Congress United obviously inspires Iranians to stand up against one the world's most oppressive regimes, giving Iranians hope that the Free World is not only watching Iran's wrongdoings but is ready to take action to establish a free society in that beautiful country with arguably one of the oldest civilizations and cultures.

Mrs. Esfandiari unfortunately is not the only case in the world. Other heroes suffer under autocratic rulers. Mrs. Suu Kyi in Burma (a Nobel Prize Laureate) has been in detention since 1989 by the military junta. According to the "World Politics Review" (author Juliette Terzieff): "The United Nations, United States and Association of Southeast Asian nations have all joined a growing chorus of calls for Burma (Myanmar) authorities to release Mrs. Suu Kyi from jail."

In the Republic of Georgia, Professor Irakli Batiashvili has been imprisoned since October 2006 (a so-called mistake) and is still awaits his release.

I remember reading about the trip by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, to Damascus, Syria. Throngs were flabbergasted such a powerful leader felt comfortable walking the streets and engaging peaceful Syrians in conversation. They could not imagine their leaders doing so.

As a former Soviet citizen, I know how weak, xenophobic and repressive regimes behave once the Free World pays attention. When the United States of America stands with its strong voice against the abuse of innocent people's human rights, action can occur. Mr. Reagan unleashed the wave of freedom and there was no way "The Axis of Evil" could stand.

Anyone who dares raise his or her voice against oppression is considered a criminal — men like Messrs. Mandela, Sharansky and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. I remember meeting Mstislav Rostropovich in Moscow. He said the Soviets took away his passport while he was in Paris, the first step toward building a criminal case. Sen. Edward Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, once told me at an airport meeting once, that democracy is the only logical choice in the world today.

In the case of U.S. scholar Haleh Esfandiari, what would Mr. Reagan do? Certainly, take pen to paper and work out a deal. No one would have to know. He would not reveal the request. It would be done privately, just "the two of us." Ronald Reagan understood the power of the personal plea, the putting aside of empty political threats to accomplish his goals. His reaction would have been harsh and swift. Mr. Reagan was brilliant at it.

And he would be a very busy man today.

Tsotne Bakuria is a former member of parliament in the Republic of Georgia and director of the America for Justice and Freedom Center.