1:05 p.m. EDT
MR. TONER: Just briefly before we start – welcome to the State Department – today, as you may or may not know, but we certainly know in the State Department, is Foreign Affairs Day, so I did want to give a hearty welcome to the more than 400 State Department retirees and their guests who returned to the Department for this annual homecoming. They’re not in the room, Brad. I know you were looking back there.
QUESTION: Four hundred.
MR. TONER: We don’t have 400 stashed back there. (Laughter.) But they did attend the plenary session this morning where they heard from Director General Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Under Secretary for Management Pat Kennedy, Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs Mike Hammer, as well as Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Maria Otero, who gave the keynote address. So that’s that.
Next, before we start, even though Free the Press or Press Freedom Day – World Press Freedom Day was yesterday, we didn’t want to close out – or we did want to close out the week with our – by highlighting some more of our cases. So just because it’s a Friday, we’ll do one more.
Today’s case is Prageeth Ekneligoda, who is a well known political reporter and cartoonist from Sri Lanka. He has not been seen or heard of – from, rather, since January 2010, which was just days before the 2010 Sri Lankan presidential election. Ekneligoda often wrote about human rights issues, including workers’ rights and racial equality. There’s an investigation that began on January 25th, 2010, but to date there have been no arrests. You can learn more about Mr. Ekneligoda’s case, as well as other imperiled journalists on our website, humanrights.gov. And this concludes our Free the Press campaign, but it does not, certainly, conclude our efforts to stand up for the vital role of the free press worldwide. We appreciate what you guys do.
QUESTION: For that, we thank you. (Laughter.)
MR. TONER: Even though I don’t always appear to enjoy it. Anyway, go ahead.
MR. TONER: Well, Brad, I would just point you to the two statements. Certainly you’ve seen the one that came out in Toria’s name earlier today. You’ve also seen the transcript of the Secretary, along with Secretary Geithner, the press availability that they gave where they address this issue. And we just released a transcript of a backgrounder done by several senior Administration officials, again, where they walked through this case, once again answered reporter’s questions.
The Secretary put it best. She said that progress has been made to help him secure the future that he wants. So we feel we’re in a good place, but I’m – I offer you all of that by way of saying that I don’t have a whole lot to offer in addition to what’s already been said on this case.
QUESTION: So – but this --
MR. TONER: But you’ll ask anyway? (Laughter.) Which is your role, I get it. Yeah.
QUESTION: This arrangement that’s been done, it was done after extensive talks with Mr. Chen, again?
MR. TONER: Well, I think you – again, following what others have said, we did have extensive consultations, both with his wife and we saw and spoke with Mr. Chen multiple times over the past – well, ever since he went to the hospital, but certainly over the past 24 hours. And I believe a doctor and an Embassy official visited him today. So again, we’ve been able to access him, hear from him, hear from his wife, and we feel progress has been made.
QUESTION: So there was no problem with the access. It was merely a logistical problem on Thursday?
MR. TONER: Well, again, I can’t speak to what problems there may have been for that first 24-hour window. I can just say that we’ve had access today. And even, in fact, yesterday, we did have access to his wife, and we did speak to him by phone.
QUESTION: Okay. And you’re going to continue to see him in the coming days --
MR. TONER: And we’re going to going to continue to see him, monitor his case closely.
QUESTION: Mark --
QUESTION: He has said that he wanted to speak directly with Secretary Clinton. Has he – or has she spoken with him during this trip personally?
MR. TONER: I don’t know, today. I don’t believe so. They did obviously speak earlier in the week when he left the Embassy.
MR. TONER: I don’t think there’s been an additional call.
QUESTION: Not an additional call. How about – does she expect to be kept up to date or have some sort of --
MR. TONER: She does. No, absolutely. I mean – and she will be. No, clearly – I mean, she said we’re going to be staying in touch with him as this process moves forward. She’ll certainly be kept up to date even as she departs Beijing and heads to India.
QUESTION: How important is it to quickly resolve this to – if he’s indeed going to come to the United States, to have him leave quickly so that this doesn’t remain a cloud and remain something that people continue to question?
MR. TONER: Well, I think first and foremost, it’s about his interests and trying to meet his interests as we talked about before, trying to secure for him the future that he wants. The Chinese authorities, I believe, in their statement said that they’re going to move expeditiously. We’ve said we’re going to move expeditiously, but I don’t have a timeline for you.
QUESTION: So it will be faster than, say, normal for a Chinese scholar or whatever --
MR. TONER: All I can –
QUESTION: -- trying to come to the United States?
MR. TONER: All I can say, Brad, is what –
QUESTION: That could take a long time.
MR. TONER: -- they’ve said in public statements, which is that they’re going to move – I think they said “expeditiously.”
In the back.
QUESTION: He’s coming to U.S. to study in New York, I think. So when do you think it will happen? In days?
MR. TONER: I just said I –
MR. TONER: He’s in the hospital now. He’s obviously receiving ongoing medical treatment. I don’t have any more details in terms of the timeline. Other than that, as Toria said in her statement, the Chinese Government is going to expeditiously – or we expect that they’ll expeditiously process his applications and that the United States would certainly then give visa requests for him and his immediate family priority attention.
QUESTION: Mark, you said that –
MR. TONER: Oh, I’ll get to you, Goyal.
QUESTION: Yesterday, at the congressional hearing, Chen Guangcheng also expressed his concern with his mom and the supporters, their safety. So have you – did U.S. Government also express the concern to the Chinese Government?
MR. TONER: I think on his behalf, we’ve expressed concern about his supporters as well, but I don’t have any details for you.
Yeah. Go ahead, Goyal.
QUESTION: One more.
MR. TONER: Oh, go ahead.
QUESTION: When he comes to United States, who’s going to sponsor him – United States sponsor?
MR. TONER: I don’t have any further details right now.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Mark, when he said that he wants to leave with the Secretary on her plane, was she informed about this, and how she felt about this? And also, at the same time, there are many Chens in China in the same situation who wants to leave the Chinese torture and human rights abuses. So where do we stand for their future, and also, Mr. Chen’s entire family and friends who were under arrest by the Chinese?
MR. TONER: Right. Well, I would just refer you to the Secretary’s remarks earlier today where she said, “This is not about just well known activists; it’s about the human rights and aspirations of more than a billion people here in China and billions more around the world. It’s about the future of this great nation and all nations,” and we’re going to, “Continue engaging with the Chinese Government at the highest levels in putting these concerns at the heart of our diplomacy.” I couldn’t put it better than that.
QUESTION: And I think – is he going to discuss all these matters when she – in India with Indian authorities, with Indian –
MR. TONER: Are we going to discuss – just to – I’m sorry. I just missed the topic.
QUESTION: About the Chinese issue, this issue, and – Mr. Chen’s issue and other issues of –
MR. TONER: We’ve got a full bilateral agenda. Certainly it comprises as well multilateral and international issues with India. I’m certain they’ll discuss regional stability as well, but I can’t say for certain what issues are going to come up.
Did you have one, sir? Or do you?
QUESTION: Did the Secretary achieve any progress with the Chinese regarding Syria?
MR. TONER: It’s – I mean, obviously she touched on it in her press availability. I didn’t get a full readout on Syria, but she did talk about the importance, more broadly speaking, that China plays in the world, and it’s in that spirit that we seek cooperation with them, whether it’s Iran, whether it’s on Syria, whether it’s on Sudan, and certainly we engaged on all those issues. But I’ll try to get a better readout of what came out specifically on Syria.
QUESTION: A follow-up, the S&ED. Today, Chinese President Hu, Vice President, Premier Wen met with the U.S. delegation. And following this S&ED, the Chinese defense minister is visiting the U.S. Do you see a good momentum here?
MR. TONER: Excuse me. You caught me drinking. Again, the Secretary spoke a little bit about the utility, the efficacy of this process. You said it’s now the fourth S&ED – Strategic and Economic Dialogue – that she’s attended, that it provides an important forum for us to get together to talk about the full range of issues on our bilateral and multilateral plates, and there’s always good momentum coming out of these meetings. It’s always important that we touch base on a wide variety – economics certainly, but also more broadly political. As I just said to Samir, there’s a range of international issues that we’re seeking to work cooperatively on with China.
QUESTION: In follow-up, in your view, what is the significance of this upcoming visit? Actually, today he’s here, the Chinese –
MR. TONER: You’re talking about the –
QUESTION: -- defense minister’s visit to the U.S. This is first after nine years.
MR. TONER: Right. I’d just – I’d refer you to the Pentagon. I’m aware of the visit. I don’t know if he has any specific meetings here at State. I’d refer you to my colleagues at the Pentagon.
QUESTION: So he won’t have any interaction with –
MR. TONER: I’ll check. I’ll check and see if he has any meetings here.
In the back and then to you.
QUESTION: Thank you. As I understand it, part of the process of Mr. Chen’s paperwork and everything to get him to the U.S. is going to require him going home to his home province to receive a passport. Will U.S. officials be allowed to stay with him during that process, or am I utterly mistaken?
MR. TONER: I would just defer to my colleagues at the Embassy in Beijing on the kind of logistical details moving forward. All I can say is what other – is to echo what others have already said, which is that we’re going to obviously monitor his case very closely, maintain contact with him going forward, and move expeditiously.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Yep. Yeah. Go ahead. I’m sorry.
MR. TONER: Can we switch to Egypt –
MR. TONER: -- or we want to finish up? Go ahead.
QUESTION: I have one more question.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: There’s been a lot of criticism of how this was handled, both politically and on Capitol Hill. Governor Romney just went on TV this morning saying that U.S. officials, quote, “did not do enough to protect Chen.” What is your reaction to that?
MR. TONER: My reaction is the reaction that you hear often from either myself or Toria, which is that, with all due respect, we’re not going to bring campaign politics to this podium. Others have said, I’ve said over the past several days, we believe that we acted in the very best traditions represented – and values represented by our country and that we acted in a way that was completely lawful and that we acted in a way that was responsive to Mr. Chen’s desires.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. My question about Egypt, about –
MR. TONER: Sure.
MR. TONER: We very much remain concerned about the ongoing violence in Egypt. As you know, we’ve called on the government there to investigate all of these incidents fully. We want to see a peaceful protest take place. We want to see all parties have the space necessary to have an open, honest political dialogue and debate about Egypt’s future.
QUESTION: Let me follow up with you. Yeah. There has been several meetings between senior officials from the States and Islamists. And there have been positive statements about the Islamists and their commitment to democracy. Are you still positive about the Islamist commitment to democracy in Egypt, or are you backing off? Do you still have this negotiation with the SCAF?
MR. TONER: Well, we have had contacts with many of the parties. And as we’ve said before, we’re not going to attempt to put labels or judge the particular labels of these parties. What we’re looking for, once there is an election, once there is a president, once there is a government in place, is how they do, in fact, govern. And that, we believe, needs to be accordance with the wishes of the Egyptian people, which is for an open, transparent democracy and one that respects human rights and the rights of women and all minorities.
QUESTION: Do you expect any deterioration in the situation that will postpone the presidential election?
MR. TONER: We don’t. I think you saw the SCAF issued a statement or came out with a statement yesterday, where they talked about commitment to that timeline that results – would result in a July – a June election and then a July transfer of power. So that’s certainly encouraging.
Yeah. Go ahead.
MR. TONER: We can go to Pakistan.
MR. TONER: I don’t really have an update on possible next visits. As you know, we’re trying to engage with the Pakistani Government after this parliamentary review. I can’t address your specific question, but when it comes to counterterrorism, we’re certainly going to listen to their views and share our own in a spirit, I think, of collaboration and cooperation.
QUESTION: And one more internal.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: What do you make as far as (inaudible) Usama bin Ladin papers released? And also, at the same time, do you still believe that some of the papers he left behind in Pakistan and Pakistani officials have some of the papers with them?
MR. TONER: I really can’t speak to the latter or the second part of your question. And for the first part, I would just refer you to the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, who are the curators of this set of documents. I don’t really have anything to add to what’s already been said in – from multiple fora.
QUESTION: But latter part: Have you had any discussion with the Pakistani officials or if they had a discussion with you if there are more papers to be in their hands after they razed this – razed his residence?
MR. TONER: I really don’t have any details. I mean, I know that there were many documents that were taken and that the documents that went to West Point are a sampling of many of those documents. But as to what may have remained behind, I don’t have any information about that.
Are we done?
MR. TONER: Great. Thanks, guys. Happy Friday. Yes.
(The briefing was concluded at 1:21 p.m.)