By Adrienne Wooster ‘19
The day before the presidential election, Professor Adam Braver, Grace Napoli, and I traveled to Washington D.C. to advocate for Hamid Babaei on behalf of the RWU Scholars at Risk Advocacy Seminar. Babaei, a former Ph.D. student at the University of Liege in Belgium, was arrested in 2013 by the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence for his refusal to spy on fellow students. Since his initial incarceration at Iran’s notorious Evin Prison and his transfer to Rajai Shahr Prison, Babaei’s mental and physical health have been in serious decline. Furthermore, the charges against him of “communicating with a hostile government” and “acts against national security” are alarmingly ambiguous to all of those in the human rights community. Despite the politically charged atmosphere in our nation’s capital, our concerns were humanitarian, not political. We met with both Democrat and Republican Representatives to raise awareness of Babaei’s case. The purpose of our trip was to gather a sufficient amount of information to further our advocacy efforts.
Our first meeting of the day was with Congressman Lee Zeldin. As we walked to the Longworth building, the quintessential autumn day seemed oddly desolate. The colossal hallways leading to Zeldin’s office were deserted other than the occasional intern briskly passing by. An ominous sense of foreboding was undeniable. This aside, our meeting with Zeldin was relatively successful. With genuine concern, he suggested that we research whether there are any prisoners of conscience with U.S. citizenship at Rajai Shahr prison. He speculated that presenting Congress with Babaei’s case along with the cases of incarcerated U.S. citizens might motivate action. This advice was echoed by April Wells, an aide to New York Senator Gillibrand’s office. Additionally, Wells advised that we find Iranian groups in either New York City or California with detailed knowledge of Iran’s legal process who might be willing to help Babaei.
Around noon, the silence of the city was broken by the bustling of the lunchtime rush hour. As we walked through the Metro, it seemed as if every fragment of passing conversation was about the upcoming election. Street vendors displayed apparel, reading “I’m With Her” and “Make America Great Again.” Newspapers displayed big pictures of the two candidates, under passionate and bolded titles. The nervous barrage of political festivities made me realize the profound value of humanitarian work. While the polarity between parties seemed to be pulling people apart, we continued on our way, trying to better the life of an individual – politics aside.
Our meetings with the Lantos Commission and Scott Busby of the U.S. State Department were most inspiring. At the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, we met with Senior Democrat Fellow, Kimberley Stanton. Stanton advised that we work with Scholars at Risk to assemble an application regarding Hamid Babaei for the Defending Freedom Project, which aims to protect the intellectual and religious freedom of individuals across the globe by pairing them with a member of Congress. At the State Department, Busby, the Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, recommended that because of Babaei’s health concerns, we pursue a medical furlough.
There is much humanitarian work to be done during this socially and politically tumultuous time. It was heartening to see concern expressed during our meetings about Hamid Babaei by both Republicans and Democrats. In a world where fear and ignorance are abundant, it is crucial that empathy and common ground be found over issues of basic human rights. Despite what the future may hold, the RWU Scholars at Risk Advocacy Seminar students will continue our humanitarian efforts, defending intellectual freedom and expression.