MS. REBECCA SHEIR
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
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
Amnesty International is pleased to testify...
But back in the 1970s Kumar was a teenager in his native Sri Lanka when one decision he made changed his life forever.
I was like 17 years old. Then things became very bad in Sri Lanka for the Tamil minority.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At the same time for a teen who had never been away from his family the separation difficult.
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.
Once the human rights group Amnesty International learned about the imprisonment, it decided to investigate.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When I was first arrested I was never shaken by my prison life.
But then his mother passed away.
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.
He became religious and decided to study law in jail.
I started to sit for exams.
To prepare for exams on his own required a lot dose of self-discipline and determination but the nature of prison life posed challenges.
It's difficult to concentrate.
But Kumar managed to find ways around those obstacles.
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.
It worked and the experience inspired him to keep going.
So then I continued studying, I didn't stop. I did the majority of my studies in the prison.
When he passed his exams and became a lawyer in Sri Lanka he defended political prisoners.
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.
But soon it became too dangerous for him to remain in Sri Lanka.
I had to leave the country because of the attack on Tamil minority, a large number of Tamils were killed.
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.
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.
So what sustained him most for more than five and a half years behind bars?
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.
I'm Heather Taylor.
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