After years of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, Carter enters spotlight with N. Korea releaseBy Greg Bluestein, AP
Saturday, August 28, 2010
Carter’s diplomacy helps free American prisoner
ATLANTA — Jimmy Carter has for years worked behind the scenes to secure the release of political prisoners. But this week he had to do it in person and in the public spotlight, traveling to North Korea to bring an American home.
The Nobel laureate was forced front-and-center when the diplomatic back-channels couldn’t get Aijalon Gomes released. Gomes, who had been teaching English in South Korea, was imprisoned and sentenced to eight years’ hard labor for crossing into the North from China on Jan. 25 for unknown reasons.
North Korea said it would release Gomes to Carter if the former president went to get him, so Carter hopped on a plane brought Gomes back to Boston.
Throughout his presidency and the 30 years since he left the White House, Carter has made a point to keep tabs on political prisoners, according to historians and Carter’s staff. He has written scores of letters to dictators and monarchs trying to secure freedom for wayward Americans and political prisoners.
“If he could free somebody by simply getting on an airplane and having dinner (in) a foreign country, he’d do that,” said historian Douglas Brinkley, who reviewed Carter’s private papers for his book “The Unfinished Presidency.”
“It’s part and parcel to Jimmy Carter’s post-presidency. Often he’ll achieve the release by a letter, but this time he had to get on a plane,” Brinkley said.
Carter’s presidency was haunted by another high-profile effort to release prisoners that famously failed. After Islamic revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Carter tried unsuccessfully for 444 days to secure their release. The 52 hostages were set free minutes after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 1981.
The next day Carter, in one of his first acts as an ex-president, flew to Germany to meet the freed hostages.
Since leaving office and creating the Atlanta-based Carter Center, he has penned dozens of letters advocating for the release of political prisoners. He has traveled the globe to promote peace and advance human rights and believes freeing political prisoners helps those goals.
The Carter Center said in a statement it often does not release the letters to allow “for a respectful exchange and exploration of remedies.” But the center has made some of the letters public.
The president was so incensed at the 1995 execution of nine environmental advocates in Nigeria that he wrote to Nigeria’s then-military ruler, Sani Abacha, to express his “profound dismay and shock.” And he’s sought to mediate the release of Israeli Sgt. Gilad Schalit, who was captured by Hamas-allied militants in 2006.
He’s also fought for the release of lesser-known prisoners. He wrote a letter in July 2006 to Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, urging him to release Mariam Denton, a human rights lawyer who had been arrested three months earlier. She was freed soon after.
“You feel like these issues are very personal to him,” Karin Ryan, who runs the center’s Human Rights program, said in a recent interview. “That has stayed with him — he’ll write a letter to a head of state about one lonely person advocating for human rights.”
Carter’s visit to North Korea may have also been aimed at soothing tensions between the two countries. But there was no indication that Kim Jong Il met with Carter as widely anticipated. The North Korean leader made a surprise trip to China during Carter’s visit. Those who study Carter, though, say he probably didn’t mind.
“He’s very results-driven,” said E. Stanly Godbold, a retired Mississippi State University historian who is working on a two-volume biography of the president and his wife Rosalynn. “I think he’s certainly willing to take the risk of being snubbed.”
Still, they say, Carter didn’t likely relish this trip. He’s 85 now and already maintains a busy enough schedule.
“He is not looking to hop on airplanes right now and fly halfway across the world, but I’m assuming he couldn’t get this one person freed via a letter, so he had to go there and do it,” said Brinkley. “This is a central component of the Carter Center and what Jimmy Carter does with his life. It’s not an aberration — it’s part of his core philosophy.”
The Carter Center, cartercenter.org/homepage.html
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