Human Rights Leadership Profile

Global Advocate for Human Rights and Democracy:
U.S. Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

By Thomas G. Whittle and Linda Amato

To his many victims, Eriberto Mederos personified pain and evil. As the head nurse in Havana’s Mazorra psychiatric hospital in the 1960s and 1970s, Mederos tortured his victims — hundreds of political dissidents — with electric shocks to the temples and testicles. He left a trail of shattered lives.

Some said he smiled as he applied the shocks that caused bodies to convulse and teeth to break.

Mederos quietly immigrated from Cuba to the United States in 1984, seeking U.S. citizenship in 1992. He received it in 1993 but notably failed to disclose his crimes to American authorities.

In April 2001, Mederos’ masquerade ended when U.S. Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-FL), denounced his systematic brutality and called upon Attorney General John Ashcroft to revoke his citizenship. “We have ample evidence that this man was a torturer,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Federal prosecutors filed charges against Mederos and, on August 1, 2002, in a blow for justice struck against torturers everywhere, a federal jury in Miami found him guilty of illegally obtaining U.S. citizenship. Mederos was ordered into custody, facing up to five years in prison and possible deportation afterward. But Mederos was already facing a sterner fate and, three weeks later, he died of cancer.

“An Impressive Record of Accomplishments”

The psychiatric torturer Mederos was called to account through the persistent efforts of a small circle of individuals. In the forefront was Ros-Lehtinen, who makes documentation and exposure of human rights abuses a mainstay of her work.

“Horrific actions done by men such as Eriberto Mederos must be stopped,” Ros-Lehtinen told Freedom. She plans to re-introduce legislation in the current Congress that will, in her words, “bring justice to his victims and to all victims of torturers.”

By searching for and holding responsible those who violate human rights, she believes, freedom and democracy become more firmly anchored in our society.

Over a public career that began in 1982, she has demonstrated an expanding willingness to battle for human rights in an ever-larger sphere. Today, one can accurately say that her interests, activities and impact span the globe.

Serving on the House of Representatives’ Government Reform and International Relations Committees, she chairs the latter’s Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights.

When appointed in February 2001 to head that subcommittee, she acknowledged that human rights issues were close to her heart. Rep. Henry Hyde (R-IL), chairman of the International Relations Committee, said, “There’s nobody better qualified” to lead on the subject of human rights, adding the congresswoman “has an impressive record of accomplishments in this arena and has proven her commitment and dedication in defense of the rights of men, women and children throughout the world.”

“As Americans we have been fortunate and blessed to have a democratic form of government that respects the fundamental rights of every human being,” she said. “Unfortunately, many victims around the world do not share the same rights and privileges that so many of us have. My position in Congress gives me the opportunity to help and aid many of these vulnerable victims who do not have a voice in their dictatorial and abusive governments.”

Condemning Torture, Rape

ILEANA ROS-LEHTINEN “has proven her commitment and dedication in defense of the rights of men, women and children throughout the world.” — Rep. Henry Hyde
Her actions have extended to many nations. On June 21, 2002, for example, she spoke before the House, condemning abuses reported in Burma’s Shan state, the largest of seven ethnic minority states in that country.

Researchers from the Shan Human Rights Foundation and Shan Women’s Action Network had detailed gang rapes and other assaults against Shan women and girls as young as five by Burmese Army personnel. The two organizations had compiled reports of 625 assaults between 1996 and 2001, alleging 25 percent ended in death and that the violence was part of an effort to intimidate the civilian population.

“I rise today to stand firm against the impunity with which the girls and women of Burma are raped, tortured, beaten, and killed as part of a systematic campaign by the Burmese army to terrorize and subjugate its people,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

In December 2002, the U.S. State Department confirmed accounts of systematic rape. And as Freedom went to press, rape was being considered as a “weapon of war” in Burma at the United Nations’ annual meeting in Geneva.

Safeguarding Women and Children


A Record of Protecting Human Rights

  IRAN: A driving force in bringing the practice of stoning to a halt.

  AFGHANISTAN: Probed atrocities by the Taliban, focusing on persecution of women, girls and religious minorities. Sponsored the Afghan Women and Children’s Relief Act, signed into law by President George W. Bush on December 12, 2001.

  WESTERN EUROPE: Held a hearing into religious discrimination in France and other nations, condemning a repressive French measure that China’s leaders were studying for possible use against the Falun Gong movement. This contributed to a more tolerant approach toward religions by the French government.

  BURMA: Condemned gang rapes and other abuses against ethnic minority girls and women and supported victims in their quest for justice.

  CHINA: Successfully urged colleagues to support a resolution to put China’s human rights record on the agenda of a meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. Held hearings on China’s growing trade in human organs for transplant. Led legislation, which passed unanimously, condemning persecution against the Falun Gong.

  CHINA AND VIETNAM: Held hearings on religious persecution in these nations, stressing the right to freedom of religion and conscience, and speaking out against officials who destroyed or closed churches, temples and shrines.

On October 31, 2001, she held a hearing into Taliban atrocities in Afghanistan, focusing on persecution of women, girls and religious minorities. After reading a passage from the Koran about the need to save lives, she said the Taliban had “taken such peaceful and sacred scriptures of the Prophet Muhammad and distorted them into a rulebook of terror.”

The hearing featured representatives of various sectors of Afghan society, including the Revolutionary Association of Women of Afghanistan, founded in 1977 and dedicated to “peace, freedom, democracy and women’s rights.”

Ros-Lehtinen said, “the Taliban engaged in widespread ethnic cleansing, littering the ground of Afghanistan with the mass graves of ethnic and religious minorities. For instance, when the Taliban captured one of the cities in Central Afghanistan, an estimated 2–5,000 males were executed, often without first making the distinction between combatant or civilian. The raping of women and girls during the siege was savage and rampant.”

She drew particular attention to the plight of widows and orphans “made destitute, sick and marginalized” by the Taliban.

A sponsor of the Afghan Women and Children’s Relief Act, which focused on women’s rights and on the need for a truly representative and broad-based government to safeguard the rights of all, she managed the debate on this act, signed into law by President George W. Bush on December 12, 2001. The measure provided for education, medical assistance and other care to reverse years of oppression of Afghan women and children.

Fighting for Justice

Iran serves as yet another example of Ros-Lehtinen’s worldwide battle for justice. After being held by the Iranian government without charges and denied legal representation, 10 out of 13 Iranian Jews were ultimately coerced into confessing to espionage charges in July 2000, receiving prison sentences of between four and 13 years.

Ros-Lehtinen protested the wrongful imprisonment of the 12 men and one teen and urged the U.S. government to pressure Iran to bring about genuine reform and democracy in that nation.

In June 2000, Reps. Ros-Lehtinen and Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX) initiated a letter to then Attorney General Janet Reno, signed by 62 Members of Congress, demanding the release of Mahnaz Samadi, an Iranian human rights activist. Samadi had been detained by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service on allegations of belonging to a terrorist organization. Amnesty International and the U.N. High Commission for Refugees also protested Samadi’s detention as contrary to international standards. In July 2000, Samadi was released.

Earlier, in February 1998, she hosted an event to educate diplomats, lawmakers and journalists on execution by stoning, as practiced in Iran. The event featured a showing of the videotaped stoning of four prisoners.

She and other members of Congress called for stepped-up international pressure to halt stoning, which had resulted in the deaths of at least seven women and five men over the previous three years, from 1995 through 1997. A decline in the practice followed, with a total of three deaths over the ensuing four years, i.e., from 1998 through 2001.

In December 2002, the head of the Iranian Supreme Administrative Court directed the nation’s judges to halt the practice. The following month, a senior cleric confirmed that stoning had been “provisionally suspended” pending a review by Iran’s leader.

“These Rights Are Enshrined”

In April 2001, Ros-Lehtinen urged fellow lawmakers to support a House Resolution that she co-sponsored to put China’s human rights record on the agenda of a meeting of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights in Geneva.

She traveled that same month to Geneva with a congressional delegation to urge the U.N. Commission on Human Rights to condemn continuing abuses in China and Cuba. The group met with High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson as well as diplomats and non-governmental organizations.

In June 2001, she held hearings on China’s growing trade in human organs for transplant. By some estimates, 90 percent of the transplants in China employ organs from executed prisoners. Amnesty International reported that some prisoners were executed for such crimes as “counter-revolutionary offenses” — a term for pro-democratic activism.

The following month, concerned that repressive actions by such countries as France, Belgium and Germany would spawn other nations to consider similar legislation, she held a hearing into religious discrimination in Western Europe.

Speaking of a particularly abusive French measure known as the About-Picard law, which China’s leaders were studying for possible use against the Falun Gong movement, she said, “it creates new arenas for religious discrimination and violations of fundamental liberties.”

Condemning intolerance, she said, “there is no — nor can there ever be — an excuse for violating or depriving human beings of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion... These rights are enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and cannot — must not — be ignored.”

She also filed legislation calling upon the Chinese leadership to cease its persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. On July 25, 2002, a measure she initiated the previous year, Concurrent Resolution 188, passed unanimously, 420-0, condemning the scope and breadth of persecution in China as well as illicit activities carried out by the Chinese regime in the U.S.

Standing with the Oppressed

“[T]here is no — nor can there ever be — an excuse for violating or depriving human beings of the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion....

“These rights are enshrined in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and cannot — must not — be ignored.” — Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen

As chair of the Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, Ros-Lehtinen held hearings in February 2002 on religious persecution in China and Vietnam, during which she stressed that freedom of religion and conscience are “universal rights endowed to all human beings.” She spoke out against Chinese officials who have “destroyed, closed or confiscated approximately 3,000 churches, temples and shrines (Christian, Buddhist and Daoist) in recent years.”

She said, “Let the U.S. send a message throughout China and throughout the East Asian region and the world, that this country proudly stands with the oppressed and will continue to fight for their right to practice their religion and beliefs.”

On October 9, 2002, her subcommittee held a hearing on the International Religious Freedom Report for 2002.* She quoted George Washington — “I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself, to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny and every species of religious persecution” — and then said, “These words ring out across the years, as if written today, to remind us of our moral obligation, to uphold and defend the right of all human beings to practice their religion or beliefs, free of intimidation.”

Recognized for Helping Others

“Members of the world community must continue their united efforts in bringing justice to all victims of human rights abusers,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “Nations must work together to solve problems such as adequate housing, religious tolerance and the enforcement of the rights of children and women.”

Children, their rights and well-being have long been one of her central concerns. In April 2001, she was named Youth Crime Watch of America’s (YCWA) Elected Official of the Year 2000 for her efforts in championing Youth Crime Watch and youth-led crime prevention.

Terry Modglin, executive director of the YCWA, said, “Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen’s efforts have played a key role in building awareness and support in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate, and as a result of the combined efforts of the Congress with students in states across the country, thousands more students are able to be safe and contribute to the safety of their schools.”

Growing up in Florida after leaving Cuba with her family at the age of seven, she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Florida International University, and embarked upon a career as an educator, founding a private elementary school. Drawn to public service by her desire to help others, she ran for the Florida House of Representatives in 1982 and won — the first Hispanic woman elected to Florida’s legislature.

She moved on to the Florida State Senate in 1986 and served there until 1989, when she became the first Hispanic woman in the United States Congress after a special election to fill the vacancy left by the death of Rep. Claude Pepper.

Since then, the nation and the world have found Ileana Ros-Lehtinen to be a champion of human rights and democracy, and a powerful voice against oppression in all forms.

* The International Religious Freedom Report is submitted to the Congress by the State Department each year in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.