One Man’s Lawyer: Jared Genser Battles for Prisoners of Conscience

Robert O'Neill

Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of the Kennedy School Bulletin.

Jared Genser MPP 1998 was a second-year law student, two years out of the Kennedy School, doing an externship with a human rights group in London when he came across James Mawdsley’s case.

Mawdsley was in a Burmese prison. It was his third time, but this time there had been no quick deportation. This time the young Briton’s protest of that country’s military dictatorship – he had been arrested as he handed out prodemocracy leaflets – had earned him a 17-year prison sentence in solitary confinement.

Genser didn’t know exactly what he could do, but he contacted Mawdsley’s family and asked if he could represent their son. A member of the British House of Lords was helping them, but they did not have a lawyer. He reminded them that he was still a student, but they said they would take all the help they could get.

“I had an idea of what to do although I didn’t know how effective it was going to be,” Genser says.

Retracing the steps he had taken while working on a human rights case during an internship the previous summer, he filed a brief with a relatively obscure United Nations body, the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, detailing the illegality of Mawdsley’s imprisonment.

That summer, while working in Washington, he took the case to Capitol Hill too, eventually getting 23 lawmakers to sign a letter urging Mawdsley’s release.

Mawdsley was more than 400 days into his sentence, and Genser was back studying in his dorm room for a law school corporate finance mid-term when the United Nations called. The UN body had ruled Mawdsley was being held in violation of international law. With news coming out that Mawdsley had also been severely beaten by prison guards, the pressure on the Burmese government grew too intense. Mawdsley was released.

Two days later, in a VIP room at Heathrow Airport, Genser finally met his client. Mawdsley gave him a firm handshake, then said: “Thanks, you saved my life.”

“For me everything clicked at that moment,” Genser says. “I didn’t really fathom what being a human rights lawyer meant other than helping people in tough circumstances. But that’s an abstract concept. For me, this was an affirmation of my view that I might actually be able to help people suffering under the yoke of oppression. It was proven correct at that one moment, and it was extraordinary.”
Public service had defined Genser’s life from a very early age.

He was working in a soup kitchen in seventh grade, and in high school, in the Washington suburb of Potomac, Maryland, he was volunteering in a hospice. The impetus, he says, came from his parents — his father a psychiatrist in government service, his mother a clinical social worker.

“I came from a family that was in public service in one way or another,” he says. “I was always encouraged to try to do my part, to leave my mark on the world, and have a positive impact on people.”

By the time he was an undergraduate at Cornell, he was teaching English as a second language to university employees, founding the Best Buddies Program to help people with developmental disabilities, and organizing a public service day for students.

He took a year off to work with Kathleen Kennedy Townsend’s Maryland Student Service Alliance, helping implement a statewide community service requirement for high school graduation, then after graduating he traveled to Israel on a Raul Wallenberg Fellowship, working in the office of then-Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert.

Genser arrived at the Kennedy School as one of the first recipients of the prestigious public service fellowships. His focus was on criminal justice policy and conflict resolution and he spent his summer in South Africa helping establish a community service model there. He was cutting a path toward a career in domestic public service work.

And then the Chinese president came to Harvard.

Genser didn’t see anything wrong with Harvard’s invitation to President Jiang Zemin in October 1997. But he says he was shocked by the university’s policy to ban protesters from campus and its initial decision to prevent students from questioning the Chinese leader.

He became one of the leaders of the student protest accidentally, he recalls, helping coordinate logistics for the large event.

But the experience changed him.

“Through that whole experience I just found myself really inspired by the people whom I met,” he says. (One of those people was former Tiananmen Square activist Yang Jian-li PhD 2001, whom Genser would represent a decade later following Yang’s imprisonment in China.)

“Hearing their stories and what they and their families had been through, I just found them incredibly compelling. And I really felt that something needed to be done to try to help people facing this kind of oppression. I just said: ‘This is what I want to do.’”

The protest was successful, drawing thousands to Harvard in one of the biggest demonstrations the school had seen since the tumultuous days of the anti-Vietnam War movement. But it left Genser feeling that more had to be accomplished.

“I just felt like I needed to have another set of tools, and that’s what drew me to law,” he says.

His time at the University of Michigan Law School would be focused entirely on human rights. But even after Mawdsley’s release, in October 2001, and the affirmation of his chosen path, Genser felt he had only scratched the surface.

“Reflecting on it I wasn’t too impressed by myself,” he says. “I got a white guy out of a Burmese prison. The question in my mind was: Can we get a Pakistani out of a Pakistani prison? Can we get a Chinese person out of a Chinese prison? Can we get a Vietnamese man or woman out of a Vietnamese prison? That’s the real test.”

Genser spent two years working for the consulting firm McKinsey before joining the law firm of DLA Piper, where he continues to work today representing international clients before Congress and the executive branch. But the challenge he had set himself following Mawdsley’s release would lead to the creation of Freedom Now.

A nonprofit dedicated to representing prisoners of conscience, Freedom Now has developed into a remarkably successful organization. Using the Mawdsley case as a template, it approaches human rights cases from a unique perspective. By representing the individuals as counsel, Freedom Now places itself at the center of the case.

“That’s a key difference,” Genser says.

An example is Aung San Suu Kyi, the world’s only imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has been confined by Burma’s military dictatorship to house arrest for 12 of the past 18 years for her leadership of the opposition, which won more than 80 percent of the vote in that country’s 1990 election and was never allowed to take office.

Since being asked by her family to represent her in 2006, Genser obtained a decision by the UN’s Working Group, reaffirming the illegality of her detention. Working with former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, Genser was also able to help coordinate a letter from 59 current and former world leaders urging the military junta to release Suu Kyi.

“There were a lot of people rowing, but not in a common direction,” Genser says.

Freedom Now begins by carefully picking the individuals it wants to represent, then creating a legal, political, and public relations strategy. The “full-service” approach has been remarkably successful, helping secure the release of its first six clients.

In the universe of human rights abuse, that is perhaps a tiny number, but success can be measured in different ways, says Freedom Now co-founder Jeremy Zucker MPP 1997.

“Freeing an unjustly imprisoned person is a victory for that individual and for justice, and with clients facing a death sentence you’re saving a life,” he says. But by helping individuals involved in a larger cause, that case has a multiplier effect. “If you believe that it’s important even in repressive societies to maintain the presence and active participation of however small a group of people who are standing up for a better way of life and more fair means of self-governance, then getting any of them their freedom for whatever period of time, I think that is success.”

Genser’s work in some way came full circle last year, when nearly five years of work resulted in the release from a Chinese prison of Yang, the Chinese democracy activist who had helped draw Genser into the field of human rights back at Harvard.

Yang had been blacklisted by the Chinese government for his prodemocracy activism, but he returned there anyway in 2002, traveling on a friend’s passport to document labor conditions. He was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for illegal entry and espionage.

More than 40 letters and petitions were written on Yang’s behalf, including several by Kennedy School and other Harvard faculty. Resolutions were passed in Congress calling for his release. And news outlets covered Yang’s mistreatment in prison.

Yang was eventually released from prison in April 2007 and was finally allowed to fly back to the United States in August.

“It was a wonderful airport moment,” says Genser, who traveled to Boston to meet Yang.

Genser’s work on individual cases is also balanced by other human rights work he has produced through his law firm, including two major reports on human rights abuses in North Korea and Burma.

Since the publication of the report on Burma, which was commissioned by former Czech President Vaclav Havel and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Burma’s situation has been voted onto the Security Council’s agenda.

And his work on North Korea, commissioned by Havel, Bondevik, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, invoked the new doctrine that a state is responsible for protecting its own people from the most serious of human rights abuses, including crimes against humanity. The report details North Korea’s unwillingness to protect its people from famines that have killed as many as one million people, as well as the imprisonment of more than 200,000 political prisoners, and urges Security Council action.

Genser led teams of DLA Piper attorneys to complete the two influential reports.

Carl Gershman says Genser’s work is a unique blend of law and strategy, something few people can accomplish. “He has the ability to think how to develop a strategy, as well as a remarkable ability to organize resources,” said Gershman, director of the National Endowment for Democracy, a private, publicly funded NGO that spends $100 million of U.S. funds annually to promote democracy worldwide. (Yang is a NED grantee.) The impact of Genser’s work has also led to national and international recognition, the most recent being his selection as a World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leader.

Genser is now working to make Freedom Now a more permanent structure, with an office, a staff, an endowment, and the ability to take on more cases.

That’s an ambition his clients can applaud.

“Believe me,” Mawdsley says, “if the world is silent in the face of your suffering, then it is much harder to endure.”

Genser and James Mawdsley, on the day Mawdsley arrived in London on October 20, 2001

“I didn’t really fathom what being a human rights lawyer meant other than helping people in tough circumstances.”

Left to right, Genser, Yang Jian-li, his son Aaron, and his wife, Christina Fu, at Boston’s Logan Airport on August 18, 2007. Yang’s cause was also taken up by Harvard and Kennedy School faculty, with professors like Richard Zeckhauser leading the way. At the time of Yang’s release, Zeckhauser noted, “This is absolutely the best news I ever could have imagined.”

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