Simon Panek, a Czech who loves freedom
By JAN MARCHAL

Agence France Presse
April 20, 2004

PRAGUE, April 20 -- A dissident student under communism, Czech Simon
Panek has remained an unconditional militant for liberty, running
the largest humanitarian organization in central Europe.

"For me, freedom is essential. It is the right of the individual to
feel part of the state. This is in my view the most important European
value," Panek told AFP in a recent interview.

Panek is an example of the sort of "new Europeans" in the 10 countries
set to join the European Union on May 1.

The 37-year-old sees himself as an inheritor of the values
the dissident playwright Vaclav Havel fought for in freeing
then-Czechoslovakia from the yoke of Soviet domination.

Panek worked with Havel in the heady days before the Iron Curtain
fell in 1989, organizing strikes in Prague universities.

"We have traveled a long road. We freed ourselves from an extremely
dangerous ideology and now this is irreversible. In short, we won,"
he said.

Panek is still fighting however against other dictatorships, such as
in Cuba.

In March, he put on a striped prisoners uniform and sat for an hour
in a symbolic cell in the middle of Prague in a demonstration with
74 other people, including the president of the Czech senate Petr
Pithart, to alert public opinion to the fate of opponents of Cuban
leader Fidel Castro.

Panek's main work is heading the humanitarian organization People in
Need, which he and several friends founded in 1992.

The organization was a follow-up on work he had done under communism
in order to help people in Armenia who were by the 1988 earthquake.

People in Need has grown into "the largest non-governmental
organization in the region," Panek said.

It has been involved in some 30 countries, including Afghanistan,
Albania, Armenia, Belarus, Myanmar and Bosnia, and has an annual
budget of over 15 million euros (18.6 million dollars).

"Our action in crisis areas is not only for classic humanitarian aid
but also to get testimony and give information in order to defend
human rights," Panek said.

Panek said his father showed him the way to fight for human rights.

"Expelled from his school shortly after the communist putsch in 1948,
my father helped Czechs to emigrate to the West, across the border
with Germany," Panek said.

His father was arrested while doing this and then in 1953 escaped
from a uranium mine where he was doing forced labor.

He was caught and finally left prison in 1960, in an amnesty.

Panek said his family read clandestine political tracts in the 1970s
and 1980s. "I knew why it was necessary to be a militant," he said.

Panek was named European of the Year in 2002 by the Reader's Digest
magazine but he said he does not see himself as a hero of democracy.

"Quite the opposite, since I tend to be authoritarian. I am too blunt
with people and lack patience. I like to give orders and that's why
I'm a manager," he said.

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