MSF holds 'Free Arjan' rally at the United Nations

New York - Yesterday, as Russian President Vladimer Putin addressed the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, 70 MSF staff members, volunteers and supporters rallied in front of the UN headquarters to call for the release of kidnapped MSF aid worker Arjan Erkel.

Erkel, the head of mission for MSF's programs in Dagestan, has been held captive since August 12, 2002. His whereabouts and condition remain unknown.

"We are here today to demand that President Putin does everything in his power to secure the safe and immediate release of Arjan Erkel and that UN member states hold the Russian leader accountable for failing to resolve Arjan's case," said Dr. Morten Rostrup, MSF International Council President, at the start of the rally.

"If the newly adopted UN resolution on the safety and security of aid workers is to have any meaning, President Putin must live up to his responsibility under international law to find and free Arjan and allow humanitarian assistance to reach those in need in the Northern Caucasus," continued Dr. Rostrup.

Actor Patrick Stewart then read a letter to Arjan written by Vincent Cochetel, an aid worker who was kidnapped in Chechnya for 11 months. The letter begins, "It is such a strange thing to feel so close to someone without knowing the person. I have known like you the unbearable depths of loneliness, too much time to think, too much time to look back."

Daniel Gluck, a New York attorney and environmentalist, whose brother, Kenny Gluck, an MSF aid worker who was kidnapped in Chechnya in 2001 and held for almost a month, spoke passionately about what Arjan's family must be going through.

"Although the world is large and the wounds too easily overlooked by those preoccupied by more mundane concerns, Arjan is never forgotten," Gluck said.

Co-sponsored by Amnesty International and hosted by actor Kathleen Chalfant, the rally also drew attention to the plight of Chechen civilians suffering from years of war and displacement. At present in Ingushetia, 80,000 displaced Chechens living in tent camps and makeshift shelters are being increasingly pressured by the Russian authorities to return to war-torn Chechnya where little or no humanitarian aid is available.

The rally concluded with the reading of the names of ten aid workers kidnapped in the Caucasus since 1999. Rally-goers then made their way to the East River to board the 'Free Arjan Boat' which cruised in front of the UN building for two hours, sending a strong message to the General Assembly that Arjan must be freed.