Behind Bars for the Holidays: 11 Political Prisoners We Want to See Free In 2015
Before we party 2014 away and usher in a new year, we hope readers take a few moments to remember those brave activists languishing behind bars for advocating basic freedoms. The Daily Beast recently partnered with Advancing Human Rights to continue putting a spotlight on dissidents from dictatorships around the world.
Movements.org is Advancing Human Rights’ new crowd-sourcing platform that connects activists from closed societies with people around the world who can help. It is an innovative model of human rights that gives all people—technologists, policy-makers, writers, journalists, artists and more—an easy way to support the struggle for freedom. Every day, more and more human-rights activists are coming to Movements.org to find help.
Below are 11 political prisoners whose stories came through Movements.org, which are well deserving of our attention and time in 2015.
Iran’s Bold Student Leader: Majid Tavakoli
By David Keyes
During the 2009 uprising in Iran, Majid Tavakoli shot to fame for his defiant calls for greater freedom. He challenged the very core of the Iranian theocracy and demanded respect for basic human rights. He quickly became one of Iran’s most famous student leaders. The regime reacted furiously, sentencing him to over eight years in prison.
In 2013, I confronted Iran’s foreign minister in New York and asked him when Tavakoli would be free. Foreign minister Zarif told me he didn’t know who Tavakoli was. Within hours, thousands of Iranians challenged the foreign minister on social media asking how that could possibly be. Days later, Tavakoli was temporarily released on furlough. When the media attention died down, Tavakoli was quietly re-imprisoned.
To this day, Tavakoli is languishing in prison for nothing more than demanding basic human rights. The pressure worked against Zarif and it can work again today. Let us ramp up the global pressure on the Iranian regime so that no Iranian diplomat can step foot outside his office without being reminded of the many political prisoners behind bars. Tavakoli and the scores of other activists, bloggers, journalists and lawyers jailed in Iran deserve our unwavering support.
David Keyes is executive director of Advancing Human Rights
Russia’s Freedom Fighter: Sergei Krivov
By Vlad Burlutskiy
Sergei Krivov is a political prisoner under Putin’s regime whose example inspires me to continue my fight for human rights and freedoms in Russia. Krivov wanted Russia to be a free and democratic country with “government of people, by the people and for the people.” He became an activist with the People’s Freedom Party and the opposition movement Solidarnost. He participated in numerous street protests, including the infamous demonstration on May 6th, 2012, when tens of thousands took to the streets to protest against human-rights violations to demand new democratic parliamentary elections. The rally was brutally suppressed by Putin’s riot police, with hundreds arrested. Sergei tried to protect one of the protesters, who was being severely beaten by a riot policemen. Then police beat Krivov but let him go.
Krivov held numerous protests to support the imprisoned activists who became known as the “May 6th prisoners.” He also participated in rallies in support of the Magnitsky Act, named after the murdered Russian lawyer who exposed corruption by high-ranking Putin’s officials. He filed complaints and petitions. According to Sergei, who more than a few times served as an election monitor, the election falsifications that he witnessed became “the point of no return” for him.
Krivov was arrested in October 2012, on the dubious charges of participation in “mass riots.” He did not plead guilty, and has regularly filed petitions in an effort to prove his innocence. While in pre-trial detention, Krivov undertook two hunger strikes. During one of these hunger strikes, Krivov was taken to court by force, in violation of medical guidelines for the treatment of detainees. He fainted several times in the courtroom, yet the judge refused to allow doctors in the courtroom.
Krivov was sentenced to serve four years at a general regime penal colony for his fight for freedom and human rights. His plight should serve as a wake-up call to the world about the destruction of human rights in Russia, and all who care about freedom and democracy should unite to demand his release by the Russian authorities.
Vlad Burlutskiy is a civic and political activist from Russia who fled the country last year due to increasing threats. He is a representative of the Free Russia Foundation, an organization which aims to rebuild freedom and democracy in Russia.
Syria’s Free Speech Advocate: Mazen Darwish
By Ahed Alhendi
Mazen Darwish is the president of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression. He was one of few outspoken activists in Syria prior to the uprising that took a place in March of 2011. In 2008, he was arrested for reporting about the abuse of prisoners in Syrian jails. When the uprising began, Darwish stayed in Damascus and turned his office into an active center that coordinated the flow of information from every part of Syria. Darwish helped set up a network of satellite servers that allow activists to upload videos and pictures without going through the Internet servers that are owned by the regime.
In February of 2012, Darwish was jailed again. His exact whereabouts are unknown but reports speak of terrible torture. Darwish, who belongs to the same clan as the Assad family, was accused inciting terrorism—a common accusation the regime uses to jail political opponents. Darwish could face up to 15 years in prison. He is a true advocate for human rights who has paid a horrible price for standing up against the Assad dictatorship. The world should stand in solidarity with him and the many other victims of the Assad regime.
Ahed Alhendi was jailed in Syria and serves as Arabic Program Coordinator at Movements.org
China’s Fearless Artist: Liu Xia
By David Feith
The artist Liu Xia has suffered under illegal house arrest for more than four years, confined to her one-bedroom Beijing apartment without access to mail, email or the phone. Her ordeal deserves to be better-known, not only for her sake but because it illustrates many of the Chinese government’s most common forms of abuse against its political critics.
Ms. Liu’s apparent crime is to be married to imprisoned literary critic Liu Xiaobo, author of the pro-democracy manifesto Charter 08, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2010—at which point the government cut Ms. Liu off from the outside world without so much as a show trial. Such extralegal repression brings to mind Chen Guangcheng, the blind lawyer illegally confined to his home until his dramatic escape in 2012, and lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who repeatedly “disappeared” before being formally imprisoned and now is under house arrest four months after his latest release from prison.
Ms. Liu, 53, has also suffered from severe depression and a recent heart attack without adequate medical treatment, akin to poet and political prisoner Zhu Yufu, and former rights activist and political prisoner Cao Shunli, who died in March of medical neglect after being denied treatment for ailments including tuberculosis. And yet China’s government insists that Liu Xia is under “no legal restriction.” As Beijing apparently sees it, no form of abuse is too extreme for an artist, lawyer, anti-corruption activist, environmentalist or anyone else bold enough to challenge the wisdom or decency of the one-Party state.
David Feith is an editorial page writer for The Wall Street Journal Asia in Hong Kong
Russia’s Fiery Opposition Leader: Sergei Udaltsov
By Ilya Ponomarev
Sergei Udaltsov is one of the leaders of Russian opposition, a coordinator of the Left Front political movement and founder of Vanguard of Red Youth. He was one of living symbols of “White Ribbon Revolution” of 2012, always in black, slim, shaved, almost a monk. His hunger strike in December 2011 received nation-wide recognition and was one of the sparks that ignited the protest movement. On the “Day of Wrath” on May 6, 2012, he was the key organizer of mass protests the day before Putin’s inauguration to his third presidential term. The protesters were violently confronted by the police and about one thousand protesters were arrested. The next day, Putin’s security forces had to clear people from downtown Moscow, afraid of riots. The inauguration had to be held in the fortified Kremlin, surrounded by an eerily quiet city. The opposition responded with a month-long Occupy Abay (like Occupy Wall St) campaign, in which Udaltsov was one of key figures. The Kremlin retaliated half a year later, when top news station NTV claimed that Udaltso; Leonid Razvozzhaev, his chief of staff and a political aide of the Left Front founder; and myself were organizing May 6 protest funded by Mikheil Saakashvili-led Georgia. Udaltsov was arrested for conspiracy; Razvozzhaev was kidnapped in Ukraine, delivered to Moscow by Russian security forces, and arrested. In the summer of 2014, they both were sentenced to 4-1/2 years in a labor camp. By the time he was sentenced, Udaltsov, with his usual passion and devotion, had called for the support of a separatist movement in Eastern Ukraine from his prison cell, claiming it was a genuine common people’s uprising against oligarchy and injustice. He called for all common people in Western and Eastern Ukraine, Crimea and Russia to unite against the ruling elites—but he was abandoned by much of the Russian opposition. Very few people showed up at his sentencing. The once popular hero, who consciously sacrificed his health and freedom to liberate Russia from Putinism, is now in prison, almost ignored by many protesters.
Ilya Ponomarev is a member of the Russian parliament.
A Jailed Wildlife Photographer in Egypt: Peter Greste
By Craig Hatkoff
Last November, Peter Greste was far from a household name—unless you happen to be a fifth grader. Greste, one of the “Al Jazeera 3," was well-known in educational and literary circles as a wonderful part-time wildlife photographer whose photos appeared in a series of best-selling children’s book published by Scholastic: Owen and Mzee. But for the last year, Greste, whose day job is as an award-winning journalist, has been slowly rotting away in a Cairo prison accused and convicted by the Egyptian regime for essentially doing his job and reporting the truth. He and two other Al Jazeera journalists have been convicted as terrorist sympathizers.
It is very difficult to sit by helplessly while a friend is imprisoned for a crime that is too implausible to comprehend. Greste and his compatriots’ only crime it seems is that they were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. They are caught in the political crosshairs of working for an organization that has been sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood—not a good thing to be at this time in Egypt.
As much as Egypt’s President el-Sisi would like this problem to simply go away, he appears to be unable to do the right thing. This might help his case in the short-run but in the long run the world is reevaluating Egypt’s potential to be a credible player in whatever emerges in the new Middle East.
Greste is no stranger to danger. In 2005 he stood right next to a BBC colleague Kate Paton in Mogadishu, who was mowed down by a terrorist’s bullet. Greste has also taken a stand in prison as a staunch critic of what has transpired. He has smuggled out through his family a number of stinging critiques of his captors.
Craig Hatkoff is the cofounder of the Tribeca Film Festival
Ethiopia’s Pro-Democracy Journalist
By Patrick Griffith
Eskinder Nega, 45, is an outspoken Ethiopian journalist and blogger who was sentenced to 18 years in prison on terrorism and treason charges. Before his arrest in 2011, the winner of PEN’s 2012 Freedom to Write award had written extensively about the “Arab Spring” uprisings and how similar events might unfold in Sub-Saharan Africa.
A widely known critic of the Ethiopian authorities, Eskinder was forced to publish his columns online because the government had previously barred him from publishing in the county. His articles, while supportive of pro-democracy protesters abroad and critical of his government at home, consistently emphasized the importance of non-violence. But because Eskinder dared to exercise his right to free expression online—a right so many of us take for granted everyday in an increasingly connected world—the government prosecuted him under the widely-criticized 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation.
The courage of this husband and father is a constant reminder of how much some sacrifice for exercising universal rights. Unfortunately, Eskinder is not alone. Other journalists and opposition activists languish in prison on similar charges. Just this April, six bloggers and three independent journalists were detained in Ethiopia under the excessively broad provisions of the 2009 Anti-Terror law; they remain in pretrial detention and face long prison sentences for following in Eskinder’s brave footsteps.
Patrick Griffith is program attorney at Freedom Now.
Saudi Arabia’s Liberal Blogger: Ra’if Badawy
By Ensaf Haidar
My husband, Ra’if Badawy, has been in prison in Saudi Arabia since 2012. He is a prisoner of conscience. He should be free, filling the world with happiness, love and his fighting spirit. Instead, he is cruelly jailed solely for the peaceful expression of his beliefs. What was Ra’if’s so-called crime? Violating Saudi Arabia’s information technology law and “insulting Islam” through the creation of “Saudi Arabian Liberals,” a website meant for social and political debate in Saudi Arabia. Ra’if needs to be freed. He should be freed. He committed no crime.
Ensaf Haidar is the wife of imprisoned Saudi Arabian activist, Ra’if Badawy
Azerbaijan’s Lawyer Freedom Fighter: Intigam Aliyev
By Maran Turner
Intigam Aliyev, 51, is one of Azerbaijan’s most prominent human-rights lawyers and is currently detained in Azerbaijan on bogus charges brought to silence and punish him. Azerbaijani authorities arrested Aliyev in August 2014 on charges of tax evasion, illegal business activity, and abuse of authority. He is being held in pretrial detention in Baku and faces up to seven years in prison if convicted. Aliyev heads the Legal Education Society, an organization founded in 1998 that provides legal support to individuals and organizations in Azerbaijan.
As a human-rights lawyer for two decades, Aliyev has submitted more than 50 cases to the European Court of Human Rights, regularly trained other lawyers, and spoke abroad often about the lack of rule of law in Azerbaijan. Shortly before his arrest, Aliyev spoke during an event at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe in which he publicly criticized Azerbaijan’s human rights record and authorities’ persistent use of arbitrary detention against civil society.
In recognition of his work on cases involving the right to vote, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and criminal due process, Aliyev received the 2012 Homo Homini Award from the Czech organization People in Need. In 2014, the Norwegian Helsinki Committee awarded him its Andrei Sakharov Award along with fellow imprisoned activists Anar Mammadli, Rasul Jafarov, and Leyla Yunus.
As the director of Freedom Now, I hold Intigam Aliyev in high esteem and have long respected his work as a human-rights lawyer. It is for his work trying to help other political prisoners that he has been outrageously imprisoned himself.
Maran Turner is director of Freedom Now
Iran’s Dissident Ayatollah: Hossein Boroujerdi
By Shayan Arya
Ayatollah Boroujerdi, is a traditional Shiite cleric who openly and unapologetically questions the legitimacy of the Islamic regime in Iran and calls for a regime change. He advocates a secular regime with a total separation of religion form the government.
Since 1994 when he reportedly first expressed his opposition to the concept of “Velayat Faghih,” Khomeini’s main doctrine, the rule of the supreme jurist, to the time of his arrest in 2007 he has been consistent in his opposition to the Islamic Republic. He was sentenced to 11 years in prison.
He was charged with “waging war against God,” endangering national security, and having contact with anti-revolutionaries and spies among other things. His importance is mainly in the fact that he is one of the very few traditional Shiite clerics with a sizable following—some of his sermons were attended by tens of thousands of his followers—that has openly called for a regime change and a establishment of a secular regime.
He has not changed his view in prison despite the enormous pressure exerted on him by the regime. His followers were and are mainly lower-class to lower-middle class and religiously conservative people in Tehran and other cities. In that regard he is unique.
Shayan Arya is a human rights who serves on the central committee of the Constitutionalist Party of Iran (Liberal Democrat) and written for The Wall Street Journal
Egypt’s Jailed Journalist: Mohamed Fadel Fahmy
By Kareem Amer
Egyptian-Canadian journalist Mohamed Fadel Fahmy first contacted me in the spring of 2006 to interview me for a book he was writing. I had been arrested by the Mubarak regime and went on to spend four years behind bars. Fahmy covered every aspect of the Egyptian revolution and wrote about many activists including the nude Egyptian blogger, Alia Magda al Mahdi. First the Muslim Brotherhood came to power only to be ousted by the Egyptian military. The army has since conducted a brutal wave of jailings against activists and journalists. Fahmy was one of them. This Egyptian journalist does not deserve to be in prison. He deserves to be free—now.
Kareem Amer is an Egyptian blogger who spent four years in prison for criticizing deposed dictator, Hosni Mubarak, and “insulting” religion.
Movements.org is a crowdsourcing platform created by Advancing Human Rights which connects activists from dictatorships with people around the world with skills to help them.