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Aaron Cohen: Sex Slaves, Drug Trade and Rock n' Roll 

In his quest to free slaves around the world, Aaron Cohen thought he’d seen it all. Then he went to Myanmar.

Wednesday, Jun 27 2007
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Page 6 of 15

In his new role at Farrell's Jubilee Foundation, Cohen developed a network of musicians and fans dedicated to humanitarianism. He ran strategy for several charity campaigns before working on Bono's Drop the Debt, which led to hundreds of billions in relinquished debt for developing countries. "Perry and Bob Geldof were the unsung heroes of that campaign," says Cohen.

At the same time, the civil war in Sudan had turned uglier. Cohen saw a PBS program documenting the slavery there and knew his access to rock stars put him in a unique position to do something. He contacted human-rights activist John Eibner, who, under the auspices of Christian Solidarity International, had already bought the freedom of thousands of slaves. Cohen told Eibner that if he could come along on a retrieval, he would form a Jubilee-inspired music festival to raise money for slave liberations.

"Then it dawned on me that I had to have the money to pay for a mission in the middle of a civil war," he says before explaining how he and his father repaired their relationship as his mother was dying. On her deathbed, she made her husband vow to help Aaron pursue his Jubilee dream. Cohen Sr. became his first patron, handing his son a ticket and money to buy human freedom.

click to flip through (5) (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)
  • (Photo by Kevin Scanlon)
 

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And so, in the late 1990s, Cohen started making volunteer trips to Sudan, where he was among the first Westerners to document slavery and genocide by Muslim militias in the North against Southern animists and Christians. The video evidence he turned over to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee through Senators Paul Wellstone and Sam Brownback in 1999 exposed the financial connections between the Sudanese slave trade and what was then a fledgling organization led by an obscure Saudi named Osama bin Laden.

From then on, Cohen has been on al Qaeda's radar. After he first criticized Sudan's Islamic regime, he got hundreds of eerie death threats — phoned in to his private numbers and sent to a personal e-mail address. One e-mail highlighted his name on a death list put out by an extremist publication linked to al Qaeda.

In October 2001, an inflammatory story on theNew York Post's Page Six labeling Cohen "Perry Farrell's spiritual guru marked for death" led to the abrupt end of his 12-year career as a music-industry insider.

When the article appeared, Cohen had just helped to launch the Jubilee Music Festival, headlined by a reunited Hole, Foo Fighters and Jane's Addiction. He flew to New York to attend an opening-night benefit with Bono, Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton and David Bowie. But post-9/11 New York couldn't handle a story like Cohen's. When he showed up backstage, he was suddenly informed he was out of a job.

"Everyone looked at me like I was a ghost," he says. "The road manager pulled me aside and said, 'Look, you can't be here. Everybody's afraid that if you're here, a bomb's gonna go off.' "

Cohen is sanguine about the chaotic effect the piece had on his life at the time. He now views it as the catalyst that turned him into a full-blown human-rights activist. It's taken behind-the-scenes players like him and emerging evidence of slave trading inside our own borders to snap politicians into action. In 2000, Congress unanimously passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act — the most comprehensive antislavery legislation since the Emancipation Proclamation — which makes human trafficking a federal crime. Since then, 150 other countries have followed suit with their own laws. And American lawmakers and enforcers have gone on the offensive, forming multidisciplinary task forces in 42 U.S. cities. They allocated $28.5 million for domestic anti-trafficking programs in 2006.

The word got out about Cohen's efforts in Sudan, and in 2003 he was subcontracted by the State Department on his first official assignment, training Nicaraguan police and helping them develop trafficking-prevention programs for schools. That was his day job. The evenings were devoted to fieldwork — assessing the way sex trafficking worked in Managua.

Cohen watched clean-cut government vice agents try to infiltrate brothels with mixed results. Recognizing that his American party-boy image could give them unique access, the Nicaraguan agents asked Cohen to take part in a retrieval — and found that his approach helped recover more than the usual number of underage victims. That success led to subsequent assessments for the U.S. government's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, which documents efforts by foreign governments to combat human trafficking and, via a tiered rating system, calls to task countries not doing enough. In the last four years, the TIP assignment has taken Cohen to five continents.

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