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“I’m an American”
Comments () | Published October 12, 2010
In his office in DC’s Penn Quarter, lawyer and lobbyist Jared Genser was puzzling out the best strategy to get his client released. Though the two had never met, Genser had been engrossed in Nyi Nyi’s case for months, making phone calls, firing off e-mails, and trekking to Capitol Hill and the State Department to get officials to press the Burmese to free Nyi Nyi.

The ordeal was all too familiar to Genser. He had helped free other political prisoners in Burma as well as in China, Pakistan, Egypt, and Vietnam.

Genser’s career spans two worlds. He is a partner in the government-relations practice of the law firm DLA Piper, where the average partner takes home $1.2 million a year. But he devotes his spare time—if you can call it that—to Freedom Now, a nonprofit he founded that provides pro bono legal, public-relations, and lobbying help to political prisoners around the world.

Genser, who grew up in Montgomery County, became interested in human-rights work as a graduate student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government in 1997 when the Chinese president spoke at the school. Harvard announced that protesters wouldn’t be allowed on campus during the speech.

“That galled me, the idea of him traveling in his own totalitarian bubble,” Genser says. He skipped class for two weeks to help organize a protest of the tightly controlled appearance. Five thousand people showed up at the demonstration, but Genser was left wondering if it mattered. “There’s nothing wrong with yelling and screaming and waving banners,” he says, “but did that have any meaningful impact?” The experience convinced him he needed a law degree to make a real difference.

During his second year at the University of Michigan School of Law, Genser spent a semester in England, where he read about a British man, James Mawdsley, who had gone to Burma to protest human-rights abuses and ended up with a sentence of 17 years in solitary confinement. While in England, Genser contacted Mawdsley’s family.

When Genser returned to Washington that summer, he reached out to friends working on Capitol Hill, and together they got six senators and 28 members of Congress to sign a letter to the Burmese government calling for Mawdsley’s release. Back in Michigan for the fall semester, Genser received word that his efforts had paid off and Mawdsley was being let go. Genser caught a flight to London and was at Heathrow Airport to watch Mawdsley reunite with his family.

“That was the most professionally satisfying moment one could ever imagine,” Genser says. “That’s when I got hooked.”

Genser learned of Nyi Nyi’s case through Wa Wa Kyaw, Nyi Nyi’s fiancée and a hospice nurse in Rockville. She had heard of Genser because he represents Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize–winning opposition leader, who is under house arrest in that country.

Though it was hard to predict how long it would take to get Nyi Nyi freed, Genser had reason to be optimistic. In his experience, clients such as Nyi Nyi—an American citizen jailed on trumped-up charges—were supposed to be the easy ones. Convincing officials at State to push their contacts within the Burmese regime to free Nyi Nyi would be essential to keeping him from fading into obscurity among the more than 2,000 political prisoners held in the country.

A few months earlier, another American, John Yettaw, had been arrested in Burma for breaking into Aung San Suu Kyi’s home. The Vietnam veteran suffers from posttraumatic-stress disorder and had claimed he wanted to warn her of a vision he’d had in which she was assassinated. Yettaw spent three months in jail while he stood trial, but after he was sentenced, the United States secured his release. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both made public statements about Yettaw, and Virginia senator Jim Webb escorted him home from Rangoon.

If this was how an American who committed an actual crime was treated, Genser thought, surely Nyi Nyi—who had done nothing wrong—would receive similar, if not stronger, support.

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Posted at 12:00 AM/ET, 10/12/2010 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles