I had her hand in mine, if only just for a minute. I'm thinking: I should have held onto her.
Now, journalist Iryna Khalip is in a KGB jail in the political Stalinist backwater of Belarus, her fate unknown but clearly precarious. Her husband, Andrei Sannikov, is there as well, both his legs reportedly broken by police when the couple was arrested during a brutal crackdown after yet another set of phony Belarussian elections Dec. 19.
Their 3-year-old son, Danila, may be taken from Iryna's aging parents and kept by the state. "It's the most terrible thing they could do," their friend, Natalya Kolyada, told me from New York last week. "It's terrifying in Belarus." Natalya co-founded a theater company there and had sneaked out with colleagues, hidden in trucks. "We'd be arrested, too, if we were still there."
Everything seemed to have been rigged by thug Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko, who's been jacking himself into power by brute force and election fraud since 1994.
Despite harassment, interrogations and regular KGB rousting, Iryna had been reporting on a rich vein of corruption in her home country. Andrei, an opposition leader, had the nerve to run against Lukashenko for president. They were tough and determined, but only two among 600-plus arrested last month, including a handful of other presidential hopefuls. The couple faces 15 years in prison.
But the world, as we know, is full of horrors. How do you choose which one is worth noting? For me, when someone is standing in front of you, her cause takes on a personal, human dimension.
At the International Women's Media Foundation awards dinner in Los Angeles last October, Iryna was visibly tired but tenacious, with a strong grip on my hand. "Please help us," she said to me, her voice low.
I was probably a little cavalier about it then. Belarus was a mystery to me. I knew Iryna had won a 2009 IWMF Courage award, but this hotel reception was filled with bravery. Picking a courageous female journalist in that crowd was like finding smart people at a Nobel laureate event.
But when I heard last week what had happened to her, it all took on the deep and somber hue of reality.
Lukashenko, her jailer, is a dark spawn of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who staged his own hypocritical spectacle recently at Russia's Ice Palace. In front of a fawning crowd, including Hollywood celebrities, Putin charmingly sang "Blueberry Hill." The video reminded me of those Adolf and Eva home movies at Berchtesgaden, laughing and playing with their German shepherds.
Repression, political arrests and even murder are making a return in Putin's Russia, which happens to be about the last country still supporting the gangster in Belarus, mainly through cheap oil exports.
It's easy to forget what dictators look like when you're serenaded by one.
Lukashenko, who calls democracy "mindless," doesn't even have the pretense of respectability.
The United States and the European Union, meanwhile, stomp their feet in front of the devil, express "regret" and "concern" and warn of drastic measures like visa embargoes for Lukashenko and his cronies. That ought to get his attention.
To date, George W. Bush has protested more than President Obama.
Next time a person of courage grabs my hand, I will do my best to hold on.
Phil Bronstein's column appears on Mondays. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, and read his blog at sfgate.com/blogs/bronstein