Last week, Russian authorities unlawfully sentenced dissident Vladimir Kara-Murza to 25 years in prison. Kara-Murza has been incredibly brave in the name of freedom, and his arbitrary detainment should be widely condemned. The news of his arrest made it to the front page of the Financial Times and several other well-respected news sources. Considering this media spotlight on Kara-Murza, I think it’s time we bring attention to the millions of other political prisoners around the world.
On April 17, Egyptian authorities arrested Neamatallah Hisham, the wife of a prominent Egyptian human rights lawyer, after she released a statement on social media exposing how her husband was physically and mentally tortured under arbitrary detainment.
On April 12, journalist Nguyen Lan Thang was sentenced to six years in prison in Vietnam. He was originally arrested on charges of “making, storing, distributing, or disseminating information, documents, and items against the State,” an article that has been used to arrest at least 32 people since 2019.
I’m scared for Neamatallah and Nguyen as I see reports by NGOs condemning their arrests, yet no statements have been made by U.S. government officials. And these two are high-profile cases. What about the ones we never hear about?
The U.S. Department of State estimates that there are over one million political prisoners worldwide. You’ve probably only heard about the prisoners that were already globally known prior to their arrest. That’s because there are so manypolitical prisoners that the media only seems to cover stories that will catch people’s eyes. Sometimes it even seems like democratic governments only make public statements for political prisoners whose release will serve their political agenda.
This hesitancy in calling out arbitrary detainment has enabled autocratic governments to take political prisoners as a way to silence dissidence, protests and uprisings in their own countries.
The United States and other democratic countries need to start enacting aggressive mechanisms to free political prisoners; if they do not, the number of unlawful detainments worldwide will only continue to rise. It is evident that the number of political prisoners worldwide has drastically increased in the last four years.
After dictator Lukashenko stole the August 2020 election, mass demonstrations erupted in Belarus and the regime unlawfully detained thousands of protesters, 1,495 of whom remain as political prisoners in Belarus today. Since the military coup in Myanmar that overthrew its democracy in 2021, 21,514 people were unlawfully arrested and 17,609 remain detained to this day. The Cuban protests that broke out in July 2021 led to the arrest of 1,812 people, 990 of whom still remain detained. In Iran, at least 20,000 people have been arrested since the protests began in September 2022. Authoritarian regimes try to obscure the numbers, so we can only assume that these are the least of the arrests.
The tactic of unlawful detainment is concurrent with the goals of an autocratic regime. As highlighted by Human Rights Watch, “The first goal of most autocrats is to chip away at the checks and balances on their authority.” When free and fair elections, an independent judiciary system and opposing political parties have already been discarded by the regime, these checks and balances are enacted by the people: independent journalists, activists, judges, politicians and human rights defenders. This is why autocrats then go ahead and detain them, as once these freedom activists are removed, there is no one to question their power.
Freedom House’s annual Freedom In The World Report proves that global freedom has now been in decline for the past 17 years. Autocracies continue to take hold over the world, freedom declines and protests erupt; I can’t help but think that the pattern will continue and that unlawful detainments will continue to rise.
Western democracies are not doing enough to publicly confront and condemn autocratic countries for the rise in unlawful detainments, and this has made it far too attractive for autocratic countries to take hostages or political prisoners.
As described by Jared Genser, a human rights lawyer for political prisoners, “Dictators only release political prisoners when they have to … If it’s a choice between their survival and releasing political prisoners, they will release political prisoners.”
The United States and other democratic nations have a responsibility to make the practice of political imprisonment costly.
On Feb. 9, 2023, the Nicaraguan regime released 222 political prisoners and deported them to the United States, revoking their Nicaraguan citizenship. This release came after seven months of targeted sanctions by the United States on the Ortega-Murillo regime.
Deborah Ullmer, regional director for Latin American and Caribbean programs at the National Democratic Institute stated, “The Nicaraguan government’s release of the political prisoners likely resulted from a mix of high-level U.S. diplomacy, targeted sanctions against the families of Ortega and Murillo and their inner circle and international pressure.”
It is evident that free nations must aggressively use their diplomatic leverage to ensure the freedom of all political prisoners. By releasing lists of countries conducting unlawful detentions, numbers and names of political prisoners, while simultaneously applying sanctions like those described in the Global Magnitsky Act, the United States can publicly shame these autocrats. We need to face the reality that Western democracies need to protect political prisoners of all nationalities. Fighting unlawful detainment in autocratic countries is necessary to prevent the continuous decline of democracy and to save the lives of human rights defenders across the world. Because of this, I urge U.S. politicians to enact mechanisms that will properly protect political prisoners of all nationalities.
It’s time we free them all.