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Jared Genser '95 fights for freedom of political prisoners

Jared Genser '95 was standing in the back of the VIP room in London's Heathrow airport when James Mawdsley -- a British citizen who had spent more than a year imprisoned in Burma for distributing pro-democracy leaflets -- was reunited with his family in 2000.

Genser, who graduated from Cornell with a degree in human service studies from the College of Human Ecology, was a University of Michigan law student who had represented Mawdsley during his imprisonment. "I observed this amazing scene unfold," Genser said. "And then I was introduced to James. He gave me a firm handshake, looked me straight in the eye and said, 'Thank you. You saved my life.' I was just blown away."

Genser had enrolled in law school to help people suffering from human rights abuses. While Mawdsley's release was a major accomplishment, he wanted to do more.

"I wasn't overly impressed with myself for getting a white guy out of a Burmese prison," he said. "The real test is if you could get a Chinese man out of a Chinese prison, or a Vietnamese man or woman out of a Vietnamese prison."

A year later, Genser founded the nonprofit organization Freedom Now to release prisoners of conscience around the world. Since then it has won the freedom of five prisoners from China, Vietnam, Burma, Pakistan and Egypt.

Genser is now president of the organization and a partner at the law firm DLA Piper in Washington, D.C., where he practices international and human rights law. He has received numerous awards for his work, including Cornell's Human Ecology Alumni Association Young Alumni Award. The National Law Journal named him one of "40 Under 40: Washington's Rising Stars" for 2009.

From the beginning, the key to Freedom Now's success has been Genser's three-pronged approach: leveraging legal, political and public relations advocacy.

One of Freedom Now's first cases was the Chinese dissident Yang Jianli. Genser and Yang had become friends while they were graduate students at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. A year after Genser founded Freedom Now, Yang was arrested while investigating labor unrest in rural China.

Genser took on the case. He worked the legal angle, filing the case with the United Nation's Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. He applied political pressure by barraging the Chinese government with letters from U.S. officials, including Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and John McCain; then President George W. Bush raised the issue twice with China's president. Genser also leveraged media interest with vigils at China's embassy and opinion pieces in U.S. newspapers.

The work eventually paid off. The Chinese government released Yang in 2007, five years after he was imprisoned.

Freedom Now's success earned it a grant to hire its first full-time staff attorney last year; a second full-time attorney joined this year. The group is working on the cases of six prisoners and is considering several others.

"The growth is what's exciting from my perspective," Genser said. "It was great to do this work as a pro bono lawyer. But the need is profound and our methodology has proved effective. So now it's great to have the resources to take on more cases."

Sheri Hall is assistant director of communications at the College of Human Ecology.

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Joe Schwartz