Ten years ago, Yang Jiangli inspired Jared Genser to go to law school.
The two men, both students at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, met while working to organize protests against Chinese President Jiang Zemin's visit to the school.
His time with Yang, an older, experienced Chinese pro-democracy activist who had been at the Tiananmen Square uprising, helped give Genser new direction in life, he said recently.
Hearing of Yang's firsthand experience fighting for democratic reform was "transformative," he said, and motivated him to become a public interest lawyer and eventually to form Freedom Now, a nonprofit that works on behalf of imprisoned dissidents.
The two men lost touch, but five years later, their paths would cross again — this time it would be Genser who helped Yang.
By then Genser was working as a lawyer for a Washington, D.C., firm and running Freedom Now on the side. He'd already helped free several political prisoners.
Yang, blacklisted from returning to his home country after Tiananmen, had returned to China, sneaking in on a friend's passport. He said he planned to help a labor rights movement. Instead, in 2002, he was arrested, imprisoned and accused of being a spy for Taiwan.
"It came full circle," Genser said. "I never expected that I would have to get him out of prison."
Though it took five years for Yang to be released, John Kamm, president of Dui Hua, a nonprofit that promotes human rights in China, said Yang probably would have been imprisoned far longer if not for Genser and others working on Yang's behalf.
'You Saved My Life'
Genser helped free his first political prisoner while still a student at the University of Michigan Law School, he said. He'd seen an article about James Mawdsley, a young Briton sentenced to 17 years in a Burmese prison for distributing pro-democracy leaflets.
Genser contacted Mawdsley's family and offered to help. He eventually persuaded the little-known U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention to pass a declaration that Burma had violated international law in Mawdsley's case. Within a few weeks, Mawdsley was free.
The two men met at an airport, in the first of what Genser calls his airport moments.
Mawdsley grabbed Genser's hand and said, "You saved my life," according to Genser.
"I was completely dumbfounded by the whole experience," Genser said recently.
Soon after, he founded Freedom Now. By the time he heard that Yang had been arrested, he'd won the release of several political prisoners.
Yang was originally held for a year with no access to his family or lawyers. After that year, he was charged with espionage, which carries a potential death sentence. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
Genser secured letters from senators, got U.S. House and Senate and U.N. resolutions supporting Yang passed and persuaded several Bush administration officials to raise Yang's case with their Chinese counterparts. He wrote letters and organized protests. He said it was the hardest thing he's ever done.
Kamm said Yang would have gotten a much longer prison term and would not have been treated as well in prison if not for Genser and Yang's wife, who was also working for his freedom.
"I've never seen anyone who could mobilize public support" like Genser, said Jerome Cohen, an expert on Chinese law at New York University School of Law. Cohen advised Yang's family while he was imprisoned.
Late last month, Genser had another of his airport moments. The two friends met at Logan International Airport in Boston, when Yang returned home to the United States. "Don't even think about going back," Genser said.
Yang, who lives in Boston with his wife and son, 14, says he will continue to work for reform in China. He runs the Foundation for China in the 21st Century, a pro-democracy group.