Social media is going through the expected cycle of mourning after the death of Nelson Mendala. Everyone has something to share about the life and work of the world’s most celebrated and revered freedom-fighter-turned-leader. We all want to honor him but perhaps posting his famous quotes or photographs isn’t the best way to do that. While perusing through my twitter feed, I was struck by what New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s tweeted.
One way of honoring Mandela's memory would be to speak up for today's political prisoners in China, Bahrain, Turkey, Ethiopia etc— Nicholas Kristof (@NickKristof) December 6, 2013
I couldn’t agree more.
When Mandela was 46-years-old, he too was a political prisoner in South Africa’s equivalent of Alcatraz - Robben Island - a former leper colony off the coast of Cape Town. What better way to remember one of the greatest heroes of the past century than to speak up for the many political prisoners held in arbitrary detention by repressive regimes all over the world?
Organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have been calling attention to some of the worst countries for political freedom.
Here are a few top offenders (including the US).
Renowned artist, Ai Weiwei, was one of China’s most famous political prisoners. While ‘tax evasion’ was his official crime, everyone knew it was because of his public campaign to speak against China's oppressive record on human rights. Source: Wikkipedia/Gao Yuan
China is known to have the highest number of political prisoners. While there are few reliable figures showing how many remain imprisoned, human rights groups estimate that they number over 2,000. This should not come as a surprise since the authoritarian one-party government places arbitrary curbs on freedom of expression, association, religion, prohibits independent labor unions and human rights organizations, apart from maintaining party control over all judicial institutions.
An anti-government protester throws a Molotov cocktail at riot police during clashes after the funeral procession of Ahmed Abdul-Ameer in the village of Sanabis, west of Manama, November 30, 2013. Source: Reuters
The Shiite-majority Kingdom of Bahrain has been plagued by antigovernment protests since the Arab spring began in 2011. Many people want an end to Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty. A government crackdown ensued, which included arbitrary arrests, disappearances, torture, attacks on Shiite religious sites, show trials in military courts and a number of other civilian deaths on the street under suspicious circumstances, Human Rights Watch reported in November this year. The group also calculated that over the last year, about a dozen people have been jailed for ridiculous ‘offences’ related to criticizing the king on Twitter.
“Detainees in orange jumpsuits sit in a holding area under the watchful eyes of Military Police at Camp X-Ray at Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, during in-processing to the temporary detention facility on Jan. 11, 2002.Source: Wikkipedia
While promoting his book, The Guantanamo Files, American author Andy Worthington wrote “Political prisoners? Surely that can’t be right, can it? Surely it’s only dictatorships in far-flung corners of the world that hold political prisoners, and not the United States of America? Sadly, no.”
Given that two years after promising to close down the controversial detention facility in Cuba, and the fact that Obama has yet to release 86 cleared detainees of the 166 left at Guantanamo Bay, it is fair to say that the U.S. is straddling the line of human rights violator. Many of these prisoners are held for arbitrary reasons without a fair trial and are reportedly forced to confess under torture and duress.
Even Mandela was deemed a terrorist by the US up till Congress voted him off in 2008, so the justification that Guantanamo detainees are suspected terrorists does not make the facility any more legitimate. Granted that few would compare Mandela’s actions in the same light as Al-Qaeda, but it doesn’t change the fact that US President Ronald Reagan branded him a terrorist and the African National Council (ANC) a terrorist organization.
Protesters run after a prison van as an unidentified defendant sticks his fist out as he is driven to a courthouse in Silivri, where a hearing for people charged with attempting to overthrow Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's Islamist-rooted government is due to take place, August 5, 2013. A Turkish court began sentencing nearly 300 defendants accused of plotting to overthrow the government, handing prison sentences of up to 20 years to some and acquitting 21 others. Source: Rueters
According to a delegation of the FIDH (International Federation for Human Rights) over 10,000 people are held in Turkish jails mostly for "crimes" of opinion.
The definition of terrorism in Turkish law is quite broad and anyone thought to have had contacts with illegal organizations is vulnerable to arrest.
FIDH learnt of serious allegations regarding torture and mistreatment of prisoners.
Human Rights Watch summarized the situation in Turkey pretty accurately when it noted that despite impressive economic growth in the past 10 years under the Justice and Development Party (AKP), the country has failed in its human rights record and ‘democratic deficit.’
“Prosecutors and courts continue to use terrorism laws to prosecute and prolong incarceration of thousands of Kurdish political activists, human rights defenders, students, journalists, and trade unionists. Free speech and media remained restricted, and there were ongoing serious violations of fair trial rights.”
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW) Ethiopian authorities are torturing and mistreating political detainees to extract confessions.
Many of these detainees (often protestors) are a result of the government repressing basic civil rights such as freedom of expression, association, and assembly. HRW noted that since the 2009 promulgation of the Charities and Societies Proclamation (CSO Law), which regulates nongovernmental organizations, and the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation, freedom of expression, assembly, and association have been increasingly restricted in Ethiopia.
“The effect of these two laws, coupled with the government’s widespread and persistent harassment, threats, and intimidation of civil society activists, journalists, and others who comment on sensitive issues or express views critical of government policy, has been severe.”
It is no secret that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) does not allow organized political opposition, free media, functioning civil society, or religious freedom.
Information provided to HRW by escapees who have fled North Korea in the past two years has again shown that people accused of political offenses are usually sent to brutal forced labor camps, known as gwalliso, operated by the National Security Agency.
Amnesty International blew the whistle on North Korea’s notorious political prisoner camps this week. The organization, however, just released satellite images, allegedly showing evidence of expansion of these camps (reportedly larger than three times the size of Washington D.C.).
According to the Amnesty International report, more than 100,000 people are imprisoned in labor camps for alleged crimes against the state.
Saudi activists say there are more than 40,000 political detainees, mostly prisoners of conscience, in jails across the kingdom.
In 2011 the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) describes political imprisonment in Saudi Arabia as "an epidemic [which] has not spared any sector of Saudi society." According to Human Rights Watch, the Saudi regime “routinely represses expression critical of the government.”
Reports indicate that detainees are held without trial for more than 16 years. Attempting to incite the public against the ruling regime and the allegiance to foreign entities are usually the ready-made charges against political dissidents in Saudi Arabia. According to Human Rights Watch, the Saudi regime “routinely represses expression critical of the government.”