Pro-democracy activists heartened by US system’s resilience

Regional News
Lee Cheuk-Yan

FILE – In this Dec. 28, 2020, file photo, pro-democracy activists, including Lee Cheuk-Yan, right, hold placards with the picture of journalist Zhang Zhan as they march to the Chinese central government’s liaison office, in Hong Kong. Although human rights campaigners around the globe were stunned to see a raging mob storm the U.S. Capitol, they say they were heartened and inspired because the system ultimately prevailed. Facing charges of unlawful assembly for organizing a banned pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong last year, Lee worries that the rampage strengthens the hand of the Chinese territory’s Communist rulers in Beijing, offering a propaganda opportunity to denigrate democracy that Chinese state-controlled media seized upon. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung, File)

JOHANNESBURG (AP) — Stunned and riveted by the riot that engulfed the U.S. Capitol, pro-democracy and human rights campaigners around the world also were reassured — because, ultimately, democracy held. The system was tested but not toppled.

“The institutions came through and defended democracy. That inspires me,” said Hopewell Chin’ono, an investigative journalist in Zimbabwe who is under pressure from authorities for calling for peaceful protests of corruption.

Out on bail from a maximum-security jail where he was held for six weeks last year, Chin’ono is due back in court Feb. 18 to face charges of inciting violence and obstructing justice. The 49-year-old spoke by phone to The Associated Press from his goat farm before tweeting Friday that was being taken into custody again. His lawyers later confirmed the arrest — his third in six months.

For outspoken activists fighting often-lonely battles against political bullies big and small, there were morale-boosting lessons inPresident Donald Trump’s failure to cling to power by stirring up riotous supporters on U.S. lawmakers who were confirming President-elect Joe Bidenas his successor.

“The only people enjoying that spectacle were the dictators. They wanted that chaos, they were hoping that Trump would win. But they were disappointed and, thankfully the institutions came through,” Chin’ono told AP. “For someone like me, for other dissidents who are criticizing their government in African countries and other places in the world, there is still no place like America.”

But the clampdown on dissidents elsewhere still went on.

Hong Kong police tightened their grip on the city’s embattled democracy movement, making 53 arrests Wednesday. That carefully executed mass roundup, involving 1,000 officers, was rapidly overshadowed by the deadly rampage later that day in Washington.

Pro-democracy activist Lee Cheuk-yan worries that the Capitol rampage strengthens the hand of the Chinese territory’s Communist rulers in Beijing, offering a propaganda opportunity to denigrate democracy that Chinese state-controlled media seized upon. Lee faces charges of unlawful assembly for organizing a banned pro-democracy rally in Hong Kong last year.

“So it’s very disheartening in a way,” Lee says. “But for me personally, I believe that the system is more important than a person.”

“People still aspire to the U.S. model of democracy, because the system is there, the constitution guarantees the separation of powers,” Lee adds.

Exiled in London, Hong Kong activist Nathan Law says the U.S. system demonstrated its resilience against mob violence.

“The checks and balances, these are the things that we recognize,” he says.

Among autocratic leaders who sought to spin the Washington rampage to their advantage was Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Peaceful protesters have been demanding his resignation after an August election widely seen as rigged gave him a sixth term in office. Security forces have cracked down on the demonstrators, arresting and beating many of them.

Lukashenko said Thursday: “I warned you: It’s bad when they walk down the street, it’s even worse when they walk into the courtyards, it will be unbearable when they come to your apartments. We must not allow this.”

But exiled Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya saw the U.S. events as “a good reminder that democracy is not given for granted. Democracy is an ongoing process, and it is what we make of it.”

In an email to the AP, she dismissed Lukashenko’s comments as one of several “propaganda outbursts.”

“They say: ‘Look at America, same hooligans as here,’” wrote Tsikhanouskaya, who was Lukashenko’s main opponent in the election. “No one trusts propaganda anymore. People understand that in such situations, dictators are trying to cover the ugliness and ineptitude of their systems of governance. … The U.S. has had a serious wake-up call, and the American society and the government are responding to it.”

In Poland, Judge Bartlomiej Przymusinski also felt that Wednesday was a bad day for autocrats.

“If the U.S. democracy comes out victorious and shows its institutional perseverance, then, it will be easier to all those who are still far away from victory, to persevere and not give up,” said Przymusinski, spokesman for Poland’s largest association of judges, which is resisting efforts by the right-wing government to chip away at judicial independence.

“The alternative is a world in which force and lies would lead us into dark times without values, under the rule of dictators from Turkey, from Russia, or mini-dictators, like in Hungary,” he said by email.

“This is why the events in the U.S. are not an internal matter but the matter of the future of the entire globe,” he added. “A successful defense of democracy may prove to be the vaccine against authoritarian viruses in still healthy countries.”

Alfredo Romero, a human rights lawyer in Venezuela, feared the U.S. violence would provide political cover for crackdowns elsewhere.

“Seeing these terrible images generates a lot of frustration,” said Romero, who has been honored by the U.S. State Department for his pro bono work on behalf of political prisoners in Venezuela. “For me, the U.S. has always been a source of inspiration. The very word ‘freedom,’ which is at the origins of the American republic, is a basic pillar of our human rights work and efforts to strengthen the rule of law in Venezuela.”

In the occupied West Bank, Palestinian activist Issa Amro wasn’t so upbeat. Hours before the Capitol was stormed, an Israeli military court found him guilty on six charges related to his participation in demonstrations against Jewish settlements. The trial is part of what Palestinians say is a growing crackdown on peaceful protests that the U.S. has ignored or even actively encouraged.

Amro, now awaiting sentencing, warns that Trump’s influence on global affairs will outlast him.

“I am very pessimistic about the right wing in the entire world, not just the United States, and the energy it has given to anarchists, racists and extremists,” he said.

But in Morocco, human rights activist Abdellatif El Hamamouchi was excited by what he saw as a stunning failure for Trump. Hamamouchi, who says he is followed almost daily by plainclothes police, saw hope in the Biden administration.

“I said, ‘This is the end of Trump!’ Populists and ‘neo-fascists’ cannot control the most ancient democratic institutions, not only in America, but in the world,” he says. ‘I firmly believed that this event would advance American democracy by reopening the debate about the danger of populism and the nationalist right.”

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Soo reported from Hong Kong; Leicester reported from Le Pecq, France. Associated Press writers Jim Heintz in Moscow; Joshua Goodman in Miami, Joseph Krauss in Jerusalem; Sylvia Hui in London; Monika Scislowska in Warsaw; and Tarik El Barakah in Rabat, Morocco, contributed.

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