Man Shares Journey From Prison To Human Rights Law (Transcript) | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Man Shares Journey From Prison To Human Rights Lawyer

MS. REBECCA SHEIR

00:00:03
Okay, so how's this for a personal trajectory. You're in Sri-Lanka where your decision to protest against the government lands you in jail. Fast forward several decades and now you're working to promote human rights around the world. Well, that's precisely what happened to the man we'll meet next. Heather Taylor brings us his story.

MS. HEATHER TAYLOR

00:00:21
T. Kumar is the high-profile advocacy director at Amnesty International USA. He's frequently asked to testify before Congress about human rights issues.

MR. T. KUMAR

00:00:32
Amnesty International is pleased to testify...

TAYLOR

00:00:35
But back in the 1970s Kumar was a teenager in his native Sri Lanka when one decision he made changed his life forever.

KUMAR

00:00:44
I was like 17 years old. Then things became very bad in Sri Lanka for the Tamil minority.

TAYLOR

00:00:50
The government implemented laws that made it more difficult for ethnic Tamils to be admitted to the university. Kumar and his classmates were ethnic Tamils themselves so they decided to do something about it.

KUMAR

00:01:00
I was involved along with thousands of other students to peacefully demonstrating against those laws. And one day we were demonstrating and imprisoned without any charge or trial.

TAYLOR

00:01:13
For a 17-year-old landing in jail could have been a harrowing experience. But according to Kumar in many ways, it wasn't at all.

KUMAR

00:01:21
So we were treated like heroes in the prison when we walked in. And the guards were so happy and they were bringing sweets and everything from outside to help us because they were belonged to the same ethnic minority, Tamil. My first impression was very positive because there's nothing to fear. Everyone was very happy we were there.

TAYLOR

00:01:47
At the same time for a teen who had never been away from his family the separation difficult.

KUMAR

00:01:49
You know, it's not easy to be in prison at any age but being in prison when you are young is especially painful. And most importantly you're being cut off from your immediate family.

TAYLOR

00:02:02
Once the human rights group Amnesty International learned about the imprisonment, it decided to investigate.

KUMAR

00:02:07
I have never advocated or used violence. I always had, I guess, a personal conscience and then they had a worldwide campaign for my release. So thousands of people around the world were demonstrating or writing letters, meeting with their legislators, and testifying.

TAYLOR

00:02:24
Thanks to those efforts Kumar was finally released after six months behind bars. He continued his protests and four or five months after his release, he was arrested again. But unlike his experience this imprisonment was starkly different.

KUMAR

00:02:39
They never kept me in the Tamil areas because they felt that Tamil, prison officials and Tamil prisoners are sympathetic. So took us to the down south in a hostile environment. The guards all belonged to the majority community. We were abused. We were tortured, beaten up.

TAYLOR

00:03:02
Over the course of more than five-and-a-half years in jail, two events in particular dramatically affected his outlook. One of them was a death in the family.

KUMAR

00:03:10
When I was first arrested I was never shaken by my prison life.

TAYLOR

00:03:15
But then his mother passed away.

KUMAR

00:03:17
This really shook me and within a week of my mother's death they arrested me. This time when I went I was so frustrated that I focused exclusively on education.

TAYLOR

00:03:33
He became religious and decided to study law in jail.

KUMAR

00:03:38
I started to sit for exams.

TAYLOR

00:03:40
To prepare for exams on his own required a lot dose of self-discipline and determination but the nature of prison life posed challenges.

KUMAR

00:03:48
It's difficult to concentrate.

TAYLOR

00:03:49
But Kumar managed to find ways around those obstacles.

KUMAR

00:03:53
In one prison, outside the prison, there was a clock tower so then I would listen very carefully and I would know that set time. So I would, like, study until midnight.

TAYLOR

00:04:05
It worked and the experience inspired him to keep going.

KUMAR

00:04:09
So then I continued studying, I didn't stop. I did the majority of my studies in the prison.

TAYLOR

00:04:15
When he passed his exams and became a lawyer in Sri Lanka he defended political prisoners.

KUMAR

00:04:19
I understood exactly how to argue cases because I was inside because I could understand the torture, I could understand the arrest, I could understand the detention, who could understand what's happening on the other side.

TAYLOR

00:04:33
But soon it became too dangerous for him to remain in Sri Lanka.

KUMAR

00:04:37
I had to leave the country because of the attack on Tamil minority, a large number of Tamils were killed.

TAYLOR

00:04:44
Kumar eventually landed safely in the U.S. where he earned a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania. But despite his extraordinary life, he readily concedes that fighting injustice was never smooth.

KUMAR

00:04:56
It's a big wow every day, no. You are depressed every year there are anniversaries, you know, the first anniversary of prison. My birthday or my mother's birthday or your father's, those things really hit you.

TAYLOR

00:05:10
So what sustained him most for more than five and a half years behind bars?

KUMAR

00:05:15
I believe that what I'm doing is the right thing for fighting against injustice. Also there are people outside who sincerely believe and trust you and looking up to you. You can't let them down.

TAYLOR

00:05:28
I'm Heather Taylor.
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