July 10, 2023
Agnieszka Fryszman, camera-shy and averse to attention, is among the most feared and celebrated human rights lawyers in the world
In fourth grade, her teacher asked the class to draw pictures of what they were going to be when they grew up.
There were firefighters, police officers, ballerinas.
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“And I drew a girl surrounded by books,” said Agnieszka Fryszman, now 59.
Which one of these kids do you think grew up to be a slayer of corporate giants, an avenger who has confronted Nazi profiteers, genocide, human traffickers and unscrupulous military subcontractors, from Tulsa to Rwanda? Who made the world reconsider Switzerland’s position in the Holocaust?
Who just brought ExxonMobil to its knees after two decades of fighting torture allegations against its hired security forces in Indonesia? The bookworm.
If you see Fryszman on the streets of D.C., she looks like someone who drew that picture 50 years ago — an unassuming woman with an overstuffed L.L.Bean bag weighing down one shoulder, keeping her gray hair, wearing comfort sandals, a lilac top, glasses.
The former hockey mom, camera-shy and averse to attention, is among the most feared and celebrated human rights lawyers in the world.
“Brilliant,” the Human Trafficking Legal Center said about her “cutting-edge work” when it gave her the advocate of the year award in 2020, noting that her “leadership in the anti-trafficking strategic litigation field is unmatched.”
Her most recent win came outside a D.C. courtroom in May, a week before a trial two decades in the making was about to begin.
This one began in 2001, when 11 villagers in the Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra came forward with horrific allegations of rape, murder and torture by Indonesian military units hired to guard the precious assets of the Arun gas fields.
This region rich in natural gas generated huge profits for ExxonMobil.
One of the villagers said guards hired by ExxonMobil shot his leg three times, then “took him to a camp and tortured him for several hours while he continued to bleed from the gunshot wounds. The security personnel broke his kneecap, smashed his skull, and burned him with cigarettes,” according to a 2006 complaint Fryszman and lawyers from her human rights team at Cohen Milstein filed in the U.S. District Court in D.C.
It’s a gruesome document, with allegations of rape, electrocution, a pile of human heads, graffiti carved into one villager’s back. For two decades, it was a story followed by the world’s media. And it ended quietly eight days before the trial was set to start, with some tears from the exhausted villagers — to whom Fryszman gives the credit. ExxonMobil settled for an undisclosed (but probably huge) amount.
The girl with all the books didn’t know she wanted to be a human rights lawyer. But she was in America as a political refugee, an immigrant from Warsaw whose parents escaped communist Poland to find work and freedom outside the oppressive regime. She knew something about persecution.
Her father died early, and childhood was about work and survival. She learned to speak English from TV — cartoons, mostly. And from all those books.
After graduating from Brown University, she worked on Capitol Hill. She wanted more, and sacrificed to get it, attending law school at night because that’s what she could afford.
She walked because the bus was too expensive.