Depending on who’s telling it, the Rev. Jesse Jackson is either a civil rights icon and trailblazer or a self-serving opportunist and attention-monger. But of all the titles Jackson has garnered in his lifetime of activism and leadership, master negotiator and hostage-freer probably aren’t on the top of the list.
But Jackson has done both of those things — logging an impressive record of international diplomacy by going into unfriendly or downright hostile territory not once or twice, but six times in all.
Jackson has negotiated the release of American hostages in Hafez al-Assad’s Syria, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Charles Taylor’s Liberia and Slobodan Milosevic’s Yugoslavia.
Today, on his 71st birthday Jackson is once again celebrating the freeing of two American captives from a foreign jail — this time in Gambia.
Late last month, Jackson got word that Gambian President Yahya Jammeh had recently carried out the execution of nine prisoners and had pledged to execute 38 more. The executions were Gambia’s first in 27 years.
Jackson appealed to the government on behalf of the soon-to-be executed prisoners and discovered that two Gambian-born Americans were being held in the very same prison. After five hours of negotiations, Jammeh announced an indefinite moratorium on the executions and the imminent release the two American prisoners.
“It seems that sometimes our government can’t make these direct appeals and be heard because our behavior here undermines our foreign policy,” Jackson told HuffPost. “I found these six times that we got these Americans freed, invariably it would be a country in which we had strained — I don’t want to call it a relationship, but — we were not talking them.”
Jackson stressed “the ability to pick up a phone and have a direct conversation.”
“We tend to have an arrogant angle, we tend to make the cost of talking with us very expensive,” Jackson said of American foreign policy. “We should talk unconditionally and agree to communicate. But there are so many bureaucratic barriers to engaging in a conversation with a leader, who we could no doubt often influence simply by the power of a conversation.”
The two freed Americans, Tamsir Jasseh, a US military veteran, and Amadou Scattred Janneh, a former professor at the University of Tennessee, were both convicted and jailed for treason, though many in the international human rights community believe the pair were political prisoners.
Jasseh was accused of being part of a botched coup against Jammeh. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2007. Janneh was sentenced to life imprisonment for reportedly distributing t-shirts with the slogan “End to Dictatorship Now” in reference to Jammeh’s presidency.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Jackson said the meeting in Gambia was arranged by a minister after a personal call to the country’s president. Jackson quickly pulled together a delegation and flew down to make an in-person appeal, he said.
Jackson said he focused on the morality and humanity of releasing the prisoners and halting the executions, an approach that doesn’t often work in official diplomatic discourse.
“We couldn’t make the argument about ‘you shouldn’t execute,’ because [the US does] that. We couldn’t make the case ‘don’t lock up people unjustly’ — [the US has] the most people incarcerated without charges in the world,” Jackson said. In fact, when Jackson brought up the fact that Jammeh shouldn’t kill or risk killing innocent people, the president brought up Troy Davis, he said.
Jackson said he brought up the fact that bad press around the executions was clouding some of the positive developments in the country, including advancements in education, women’s rights, and health care.
“None of this can be heard if the overriding sound is about executions and jailing,” Jackson recalled telling the president.
Jackson said his access to so-called despot leaders is based on two factors. First, he attends several non-aligned international meetings, conferences and celebrations that American diplomats do not, he said. Additionally, Jackson highlighted the fact that many foreign leaders respect the American civil rights movement and its leaders. There is a kinship, he said, among the world’s suffering and oppressed.
“Many people gain strength in our struggle. They see us as pace-setters; our non-violent disciplined struggle has gained strength,” he said.
But Jackson said American “hypocrisy” when it comes to domestic policy undermines the moral positioning of the US. He specifically described Republican-led efforts that require voters to present a state-issued photo ID to vote as an embarrassment.
“The idea of purging a millions of voters in Ohio, purging millions in Pennsylvania and a million and a half in Florida, trying to determine an election by thievery … in other countries that would be cause for civil war,” he said.