PROVIDENCE, R.I.—Scenic Roger Williams Park was the site Saturday, April 5, for Rhode Island to welcome the arrival of the global Human Rights Torch Relay. Providence is the second stop in New England for the HRTR, which began its East Coast tour in Boston on March 30.
Initiated by the international human rights organization Coalition to Investigate the Persecution of Falun Gong, the HRTR is a global campaign that started last August in Athens to raise awareness of the Chinese communist regime's escalating human rights violations ahead of the Beijing Olympics.
Organizers in Rhode Island were hoping the rain would subside in time for the outdoor events, which included a 5-kilometer race and a rally. And it did, although the sky remained overcast and the temperature brisk throughout most of the day.
After the race, the ceremony began with the arrival of the torch carried by 13-year-old Jenirose Mercier from Massachusetts, dressed as a Grecian goddess.
State Representative Pat Serpa officially welcomed the torch to Rhode Island and read a joint House/Senate Resolution from the General Assembly, for which she was also a co-sponsor, expressing support for the Human Rights Torch Relay.
"It's our responsibility to serve as stewards of human rights and human dignity," said Rep. Serpa in her welcoming speech. "It is this stewardship that will bring about the change that we need in this world to end violence."
Letters of support from U.S. Congressman James Langevin and U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse were read at the ceremony, and the Rhode Island HRTR received a citation from Lieutenant Governor Elizabeth Roberts.
The first speaker was Xu Wenli, one of China's most recognized pro-democracy advocates. Mr. Xu, now a Senior Fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies, spent 16 years imprisoned in China. He spoke in Chinese, with a translator, about how his imprisonment affected his family—especially his daughter. He pointed out that the Chinese people have been brainwashed by the regime into thinking that those who "yearn for change because they love China" are criminals.
Other speakers from Brown University included junior Scott Warren, director of the student group STAND: A Student Anti-Genocide Coalition. He provided staggering statistics of displacement, death, and destruction in the ongoing genocide of Darfurians at the hands of the Sudanese military—which is funded by China.
"Genocide is an expensive venture; it doesn't occur cheaply," stated Mr. Warren.
"Genocide is not just a Sudanese problem, and it's not just a Chinese problem—but it's a universal problem, it's a global problem," he said. STAND and other human rights activists are calling for world leaders to boycott the opening ceremony at the Beijing Olympics, which Warren called "China's coming-out party," unless significant action is taken.
Patrick Cook-Deegan, also from Brown, is the Northeast student coordinator for the group U.S. Campaign for Burma. He talked about the atrocities committed by the military in eastern Burma, which is also backed by the Chinese regime. Deegan has been to the region and described how 3,200 villages have been systematically burned and destroyed, as in Darfur, and that eastern Burma has the most landmine victims in the world.
"For people that don't have a voice, I think it's important that we show up at things like this," Deegan said referring to the HRTR, "to show that even though someone is half a world away, their story still touches us, and their lives and their freedom are so important to us."
His organization is also calling for a boycott of the opening ceremony on Aug. 8, which is the 20-year anniversary of the uprising in Burma.
Steve Gigliotti, Boston HRTR coordinator, spoke about how the Chinese communist regime—as part of its premeditated genocide of Falun Gong—is carrying on forcible organ harvesting for profit from live Falun Gong practitioners held as prisoners of conscience in concentration camps, according to witnesses. He described how quickly transplants are made available in China—within two to four weeks—while in other countries like the U.S., patients wait for several years.
"Several years compared to a few weeks is shocking documentation that there is a live bank of people waiting to be harvested for their organs," said Gigliotti.
Other speakers at the event included John Kusumi, founder and director of the China Support Network, who has started a new coalition called Freedom First, Olympics Second; Voice of the Martyrs representative Vincent Lifieri, who spoke about the intensifying persecution of Christians in China; and Sylvia Weber from the International Campaign for Tibet, who called the situation in Tibet genocide and went on to describe the horrors Tibetans have endured.
After the rally, Rhode Island HRTR coordinator Al Iannotti expressed how happy he was to have such a diversity of speakers come together, and summed up its significance: "We had almost every group recognized and supported here, which was great," he said.
"To clarify the situation about what's going on in China and to really move forward with it, I think it really takes a collaborative effort and none of these groups alone, I think, can do this on their own. It seems like working together as a team in a mutually respected field is much, much better because it really shows that we all understand each other, that we all respect each other, and that we all feel that these issues are important."
In New England, HRTR events are scheduled for Portsmouth, NH; Portland, ME; and New Haven, CT. For information, see www.humanrightstorch.org.