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Brad Clift talks about his experience in Darfur (Doug Hardy photo)

“Silence is the ally of evil,” Brad Clift, a former Hartford Courant photographer, told a group of journalists and academics gathered for a dinner that was the prelude to Monday’s presentation of the Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights. This year’s prize went to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Speaking for the first time publicly about his imprisonment in Darfur, Clift said “the reason I risked everything is because I thought it was the right thing to do.”

And while it may have been the right thing to do, Clift never imagined that he would become one of the victims he sought to cover.

Clift was taken into police custody about 30 miles from what he would later discover was a Janjaweed encampment. The police thought he was an American spy. Spying is a crime punishable by death in the Sudan.

“I was tortured,” Clift said. “They took me in a room and tried to drown me.”

He said his captors let him know everyday that they had the power to end his life.

Clift is currently writing a book about his experience, but he said it has taken him years to talk publicly about what happened because they did more than just try to drown him. “They humiliated me on every level a person could be humiliated at,” Clift said.

“I sat there after they attempted to drown me and I thought about my five year old son at the time. And I thought how could it be possible that I could have bitten off something that’s so amazingly huge, that’s so much bigger than me,” Clift said. “I thought I knew how to do all this.”

Clift is a photographer with more than 25 years of experience both in America and internationally.

“There is a part of me that has a fairly large ego and fairly large sense of self, but it was destroyed there,” Clift said. “And it was destroyed because I believed I was doing something really good and the fact of the matter was I became a victim. I became who I was covering.”

While imprisoned Clift said Tracy Gordon Fox, another former Hartford Courant reporter, was one of his biggest supporters. Fox, who also attended Sunday’s dinner at The Hartford Club, stood up toward the end and turned to U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd and said “I believe you saved his life.”

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U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd talks about his father and why the award was created (Doug Hardy photo)

Dodd helped broker a deal to get Clift home safely and keep him from becoming front page news.

Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, said unfortunately Clift is not alone. There are approximately 125 journalists currently in prisons all over the world. He said the number has remained fairly steady since 2001.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 742 journalists have been killed on duty since the organization began tracking these crimes in 1992.

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Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists (Doug Hardy photo)

In an effort to draw attention to this issue Dodd introduced legislation last week that directs the State Department to include information relating to freedom of the press worldwide in annual country reports on human rights practices.

The Daniel Pearl Freedom of the Press Act is named in honor of Wall Street Journal South Asia Bureau Chief Daniel Pearl, who in 2002 was kidnapped and brutally murdered by extremists in Pakistan.

Pearl’s widow, Mariane Pearl, traveled to Connecticut to give the Committee to Protect Journalists the award Monday at the University of Connecticut’s Thomas J. Dodd Research Center on the Storrs campus.

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Mariane Pearl, widow of Daniel Pearl the Wall Street Journal reporter murdered in Pakistan in 2002 (Doug Hardy photo)

Pearl who is also a journalist attended Sunday’s dinner. She talked about the passion that drives journalists to cover issues which are bigger than themselves. She said her husband taught her to “go the extra mile,” when covering a story.

Pearl also talked about the work the Committee to Protect Journalists is doing around the world. She said she believes it has evolved from protecting individual journalists to protecting the trade itself.

“The best hope for all of us is to inspire young people to follow our path,” Pearl said.

Just last week Pearl said she told her seven year old son what really happened to his father in 2002 before he was born. She said it was hard to tell him the truth, but after hearing the story Pearl said all her son wanted to know was if she was defeated. She said she was not.

“And you can’t lie to a child,” she said.

Clift was also not defeated. After 11 doctors and seven lawyers, he said he would do it again.

“I know that the cost was very high for me and I would do it again,” he said. “I’m one of the lucky ones.”