‘Permanent’ Protesters at Embassies Air Alleged Injustices to World

The Washington Diplomat

Volume 8, Number 2

February 2002

by Shaazka Beyerle

This is day 162 of a 221 day-and-night vigil on Sheridan Circle, outside the Turkish Embassy, by members of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN) to protest what the group says is the ongoing oppression of Kurds in countries such as Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq.

Like any capital city in a healthy democracy, Washington, D.C., is the site of many demonstrations. It is also the host of something more unusual?ongoing vigils and protests that have become regular fixtures and sources of irritation for the embassies toward which they are directed.

What cause or grievance would motivate a person to protest outside an embassy for days, months, even years on end? Persecution, human rights, personal trauma, combined with guaranteed freedom of speech.

Here is an account of three protests?from the most basic form of dissent to the first step in launching a cause to an act of last resort. The three stories are each a cry for empowerment by those who seek a voice.

Falun Gong Dissent

Every afternoon since Oct. 22, 1999, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., Lisa Tao can be found in the little park on Connecticut Avenue across from the Chinese Embassy. Living in the United States since 1990, the 59-year-old mother moves through Tai Chi poses or is still in meditation. Often she is joined by her husband. On Saturdays up to 100 people fill the park.

They call themselves practitioners of Falun Gong, a phenomenon that seems to be sweeping China. Brought to the public in 1992, it combines five sets of Tai Chi and other exercises, meditation, and adherence to the principles of truth, compassion and tolerance. Followers say it is not a religion. They have been called a cult by the Chinese authorities. Whether or not this is true,

what does seem certain is that practitioners are being persecuted: There have been thousands of arrests and sentences in China, and independent human rights groups estimate that more than 150 people have died in Chinese custody.

Which brings us back to Lisa Tao. With translation assistance from Dana Cheng, Washington, D.C., contact person for the Falun Gong Information Center, Tao said, “I will protest until [President] Jiang Zeminís regime stops persecuting Falun Gong … I hope the Falun Gong issue can be resolved in a peaceful way. I hope no more practitioners get killed in China. I hope those thousands of practitioners detained and arrested rejoin their families.”

She and Cheng assert that the Chinese president is fearful of the growing popularity of the movement. “Jiang Zemin found out that many high-level officials are practitioners, and the number of practitioners is greater than the 100 million members of the Communist party,” said Cheng. “Jiang was afraid to lose the control over peopleís minds,” she added.

The Chinese Embassy has had limited contact with the protesters. “At first the embassy wanted to kick us off and threatened to call the police, but we told them we have a permit and will call the police,” said Tao. Once, according to Tao, 20 people came out of the embassy and harassed Tao and another follower. On other occasions the embassy has put up its own anti-Falun Gong materials. The Chinese Embassy did not respond to a phone call for comment on the protests. Cheng and Tao said that the overall response by the public has been positive, ranging from “V” signs to a woman bringing hot tea to them on a cold day.

Insofar that the Falun Gong cannot protest in their own country, Washington provides a safe haven. “Right now, I cannot see that Jiang Zemin will change his mind, but I believe that justice will prevail and evil will eventually perish. I will persist and continue,” Tao vowed.

Human Rights 101

You are new in Washington. You want to draw attention to the plight of your people, which historically have lived in an area now part of Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. You want to say things that you could not back home for fear of being arrested. What do you do? You create an organization, disseminate information, and start protesting.

This is a rough sketch of Kani Xulamís Washington odyssey as the director of the American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN). Since its founding in 1993, AKIN has held about 20 protests in Washington, D.C., the most recent at Sheridan Circle across from the Turkish Embassy. The activists have become a familiar sight over the years.

“Protest is a way of staying in the loop,” he said. When asked why they have not demonstrated in front of the Syrian Embassy or the Iranian Interests Section, Xulam answered, “Our criticisms are against oppression of the Kurds in all countries, but because 50 percent live in Turkey, we focus on it.”

Most recently, the organization held a 221-day-and-night vigil from March to October 2001. It commemorated the seven-year anniversary of the imprisonment of Leyla Zana, an ethnic Kurd who was a newly elected member of the Turkish Parliament. A group of 150 protesters took turns at the vigil. The protest was planned to last nine months but shut down early following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Before Sept. 11, the demonstrators received mixed reactions from the public. “Sometimes people would stop, comment, even hug us.” After the terrorist attacks, there was much verbalabuse. The final straw came one night when a man attacked the protesters with a knife. “We were a target, we were erroneously associated with Arabs and the terrorists, people vented on us,” Xulam said.

How does one measure the success of such vigils? Like the Falun Gong, the very fact that it takes place and the embassy in question cannot stop it is considered a victory. “Turkey is getting angry, but Zana is still in jail and things havenít moved with regards to her case and our general situation,” admitted Xulam. On the other hand, he said that they are getting some publicity here and more back home. “There are accounts in the Turkish press that our office should be closed and that I should be arrested and extradited.”

The protesters have had little direct contact with the Turkish Embassy. According to reports in the Turkish press, Xulam claims the outgoing and incoming ambassadors tried to have AKINís permit revoked. Bulent Erdemgil, the press counselor of the Turkish Embassy, said they have no comment on the protests.

Given that the Kurdish struggle has had a violent wing, which some, including the Turkish government, consider terrorist, Xulam was asked to outline his cause. “The Kurdish issue is the will of the Kurds to be accepted and respected everywhere in the world. It is the resolution of the problem of the identity of a people that should not be obliterated,” he said. “Our preference is independence from Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. We believe that if we had a plebiscite, like in East Timor, most would want independence,” he added.

Charges Against the Church

John Wojnowski, an intense, quietly agitated man, stands at an intersection on Massachusetts Avenue in front of the Apostolic Nunciature, also called the Embassy of the Holy See, which is the Vaticanís diplomatic representation. He holds signs that grab oneís attention, such as “Catholic clergy molest boys worldwide,” and “Pedophilia?Catholic Clergyís Sordid Professional Secret.” Not affiliated with any group, he explained that he is acting on his own and is uncomfortable in groups.

With few exceptions, Wojnowski has stood on this corner a few hours every morning and afternoon since April 1998. “I am protesting because a crime was committed against me. I was sexually molested by a Catholic priest,” Wojnowski said. He seeks two things with his protest?attention and financial reparations for his suffering. “The church is responsible for the damage to the lives of children molested by clergy,” he added.

The son of a Polish diplomat, Wojnowski said he spent much of his childhood in Italy, where his father was posted after World War II. He said he was a happy boy, but between the ages of 14 and 15, there was a drastic change in his personality. He became withdrawn and insecure. Never finishing high school, to the disappointment of his parents, he immigrated to Canada when has was 18. He worked all his life as a laborer. In 1963 he moved to the United States.

In the fall of 1997 he said he had a flashback?a memory of being molested by a Catholic priest. “I was traumatized and had blocked it out,” he said. He sought help and guidance from a priest at a local church. The church arranged for therapy. Wojnowski went several times but felt uncomfortable. “The priest,” he maintained, “said the Church owes reparations, and he suggested I write to Cardinal Hickey and c.c. the letter to the Apostolic Nunciature.”

When his attempts to get a reply failed, perhaps in desperation or as a last resort, he found himself in front of the Embassy of the Holy See. “I realized they knew I was a mouse and thought I would give up Ö I came to the embassy with a sign.” Thus began his quixotic journey for some kind of justice.

After that, Wojnowski acknowledged that he received a letter stating that the priest in question had died and that the church was willing to provide him with therapy. He was not satisfied with the reply and returned to the embassy with a second sign: “My life was ruined by a pedophile priest.” Once an official came out of the embassy and spoke with him. “He told me the statute of limitation had passed,” Wojnowski said.

The reactions from passers-by are varied. “Some cars give me a thumbs-up, and I get the finger a couple of times every day. But there is more positive than negative feedback,” he said. Now 59 years old, Wojnowski has no plans to stop. “It has become a game and a challenge Ö I wonít give up.” The Nunciature did not reply to a phone call for its comments.

Shaazka Beyerle is a freelance writer in Maryland.