Apparently, if the price is right, celebrities will do just about anything, including performing for or willingly befriending brutal dictators without so much as a quick Wikipedia search. Most recently, Jennifer Lopez was criticized for this. Turns out, it’s a lot more common than you would think. Here are a few notable celebrity-dictator encounters:
1. Jennifer Lopez and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov
Saturday night, Jennifer Lopez performed at an event sponsored by China National Petroleum Corp. where she sang “Happy Birthday” to Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov, the leader of a country that has been described as one of the “most repressive.” (She’s just being Jenny from the Block, okay!)
A dentist by trade, the current president of Turkmenistan, Berdimuhamedov, came into power in 2006 and has remained unopposed since. Human Rights Watch describes the conditions in Turkmenistan as:
The country is virtually closed to independent scrutiny. Media and religious freedoms are subject to draconian restrictions, and human rights defenders and other activists face the constant threat of government reprisal. The authorities continue to use imprisonment as a tool for political retaliation and to restrict peoples’ right to travel freely. Turkmenistan continues to expand relations with foreign governments and international organizations, but without meaningful outcomes for human rights.
Afterward, JLo apologized and her reps put out a statement saying that “the event was vetted by her representatives, had there been knowledge of human rights issues of any kind, Jennifer would not have attended.” (Like I said, all it takes is a quick Wikipedia search. It’s not that hard, folks!)
2. Dennis Rodman and Kim Jong-Un
One of the most bizarre photos of 2013 was taken of former NBA player Dennis Rodman and North Korea’s recently appointed, baby-faced dictator Kim Jong-Un. Rodman later tweeted, “I’m calling on the Supreme Leader of North Korea or as I call him ‘Kim,’ to do me a solid and cut Kenneth Bae loose.”
Kenneth Bae, an American citizen and Christian missionary, is currently being detained in North Korea and has been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in a “special prison” after being found guilty of attempting to overthrow the North Korean government after crossing into the country to distribute food to orphans. Bae is also accused of distributing bibles. (Christianity is currently banned in North Korea.)
Kim Jong-Un’s succession as North Korea’s supreme leader after the death of his father, Kim Jong-Il, has had no positive impact on the country’s dire human rights record. More than 200,000 North Koreans, including children, are imprisoned in camps where many perish from forced labor, inadequate food, and abuse by guards. Arbitrary arrest, lack of due process, and torture are pervasive problems. There is no independent media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom. Government policies have continually subjected North Koreans to food shortages and famine.
Rodman announced plans to return to North Korea in August to secure Bae’s release. And who knows? It might work.
3. Sting and Gulnara Karimova
Turkmenistan’s neighbor, Uzbekistan, isn’t free of human rights abuses, either. That didn’t stop Sting from performing for the eldest daughter of Uzbekistan’s dictator, Islam Karimov, at an event she was hosting called “Art Week Style.uz” in 2009.
The 40-year-old Gulnara Karimova is a Harvard-alum, businesswoman, politician, musician, and fashion and jewelry designer. She serves as Uzbekistan’s diplomat to Spain and the United Nations. In 2011, she was cut out of New York’s prestigious Fashion Week after Human Rights Watch contacted the event’s manager and various sponsors.
[Karimova’s] father’s government forces up to two million Uzbek children to leave school for two months each year to pick cotton – a fabric woven throughout Karimova’s designs. [Human Rights Watch]
WikiLeaks revealed in 2010 that:
Most Uzbeks see Karimova as a greedy, power-hungry individual who uses her father to crush business people or anyone else who stands in her way… She remains the single most hated person in the country. [The Guardian]
The 75-year-old Islam Karimov has been serving as Uzbekistan’s president since 1989. His regime has been accused of many human rights violations and a former British ambassador even accused Karimov of boiling alive his opponents.
Despite Sting’s background as an environmental activist and member of Amnesty International, the musician defended his decision by stating, “I am well aware of the Uzbek president’s appalling reputation in the field of human rights as well as the environment. I made the decision to play there in spite of that.”
4. Various celebrities and Hugo Chavez
Since 2007, Sean Penn had a close friendship with the former Venezuelan dictator (it’s debatable whether he was or wasn’t), who passed away earlier in March. Penn attended a candlelight vigil for Chavez in Bolivia. In a statement, Penn said, “Today the people of the United States lost a friend it never knew it had. And poor people around the world lost a champion. I lost a friend I was blessed to have. My thoughts are with the family of President Chavez and the people of Venezuela.”
At one point, Penn had supposedly been considered to be Venezuela’s ambassador to the United States. Other celebrities who have sung Chavez’s praises include Danny Glover, Kevin Spacey, Reverend Jesse Jackson, Michael Moore, and Oliver Stone.
During his reign, Chavez had been accused of several human rights abuses. Sean Penn himself was physically abusive towards ex-wife Madonna and once hit her in the head with a baseball bat in 1987. The following year, Penn broke into Madonna’s house, tied her to a chair, threatened to shave her head, and went on to physically and sexually abuse her for nine hours. (Now we know why these two were friends.)
5. Various celebrities and Ramzan Kadyrov
Hilary Swank came under fire in 2011 when it was revealed that she had attended a birthday celebration for Chechnya’s leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. Afterward, Swank apologized profusely and claimed she had no knowledge of the Chechen dictator’s reputation.
Sarah Wasserman of the Human Rights Foundation countered this by stating that HRF had contacted Swank through her management 10 days before Swank was to attend the party. Wasserman added, “We offered to brief her, but her manager cut us short and responded that Hilary had no plans to attend. Her claim of ignorance is laughable. Worse, the video of her birthday wishes shows her boasting about her knowledge of Chechnya and how she ‘reads’ and ‘does her research.'”
Meanwhile, Van Damme, who received $1 million for his appearance, and Seal, who received $500,000, came under less scrutiny. During the party, Van Damme stood on stage and said, “I love you Mr. Kadyrov.” Neither apologized and neither indicated that they would return the money they received. In fact, Seal defended his decision by tweeting, “By going there, I played MUSIC for the Chechenyan [sic] people. I’m a MUSICIAN and would appreciate if you leave me out of your politics.”
Given Chechnya’s poor economic conditions, however, Seal’s tweet simply doesn’t ring true. The majority of the Chechen people would not have been able to attend the extravagant birthday celebration.
Meanwhile, Kevin Costner, Eva Mendes, and Shakira had been invited to attend, as well. All three declined.
Let’s not forget Mike Tyson, either. The former professional boxer and the Chechen dictator are reportedly good friends.
6. Various celebrities and Muammar Gaddafi
In 2011, WikiLeaks revealed that Mariah Carey, Nelly Furtado, Beyonce, and Usher have all either performed for or attended an event hosted by the late Libyan dictator’s son, Mutassim Gaddafi. Beyonce and Usher had both attended a party hosted by Mutassim in St. Barts, an expensive island paradise, in 2010. Furtado had performed for the entire Gaddafi family in 2007.
Mutassim was killed by rebels in October 2011 after the Libyan revolution overthrew Gaddafi’s regime.
All four musicians apologized and have said that they donated the money they received from those events to charity.
7. Julio Iglesias and Teodoro Obiang
The award-winning Spanish singer and songwriter and the father of Enrique Iglesias, Julio Iglesias, performed a concert in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea in 2012. Since 1979, the tiny African country has been ruled by dictator Teodoro Obiang. Despite being an oil rich country, the majority of the population is very poor:
Vast oil revenues fund lavish lifestyles for the small elite surrounding the president, while most of the population lives in poverty, their basic economic and social rights unmet. Those who question this disparity are branded “enemies.” Despite some areas of relative progress, human rights conditions remain very poor. Arbitrary detention and unfair trials continue to take place, and mistreatment of detainees remains commonplace, sometimes rising to the level of torture. [Human Rights Watch]
Concert tickets reportedly sold for $1,000. Later, Iglesias defended his decision to perform for the dictator and his friends and family by stating that the country has improved greatly. (Because dictators are gracious enough to show musicians the impoverished areas and human rights abuses right before said musician is about to perform at a concert on the dictator’s behalf.)
And this isn’t the first time Iglesias has gotten close to a dictator. In 2008, he produced a music video for Karimova (above) to boost her image in Uzbekistan.
8. Naomi Campbell and Charles Taylor
Naomi Campbell, famed supermodel and currently one of the judges/mentors on reality competition show The Face, admitted to receiving blood diamonds from Charles Taylor in a testimony to U.N. prosecutors. Taylor, the former president of Liberia, was accused of crimes against humanity for his involvement in the Sierra Leone Civil War.
Campbell and Taylor are standing next to each other in the picture above, which was taken at a banquet hosted by Nelson Mandela. Quincy Jones, Mia Farrow, and Imran Khan were also in attendance.
The illegal diamond mining trade, which was used to fund the rebels in Sierra Leone, has left at least 120,000 people dead and millions homeless. In April 2012, Taylor was ultimately found guilty on 11 charges that include murder, rape, use of child soldiers, and enslavement.
Are you appalled? If a dictator offered you $1 million to attend his party, would you go?