Political Prisoners: Fighting for Democracy in Harsh Conditions
May 11, 2012
By: Rebecca Aaberg | Printer Friendly
Incidents of imprisonment for supporting democracy and human rights can point to larger challenges for the international community to support democratic practices and for countries to implement reforms. Activists, journalists, and academics are held in prisons around the world for their political beliefs, but while recent prisoner releases have made headlines, thousands more continue to suffer through detentions that are illegal, in harsh conditions, or both. Over the past year, dissidents and pro-democracy activists have had mixed success in pressuring governments to institute political change. The international community continues to release statements condemning the detention of political prisoners, though the actual effect has been limited.
Belarus has been praised by the EU for releasing Andrey Sannikau, a presidential candidate critical of the government, in April. However, Sannikau’s release is not enough for the EU and the US to release Belarus from sanctions, such as the travel ban imposed on more than 200 government officials. Relations between the EU and Belarus have been strained over Belarus’s poor human rights record. European Union Spokesperson Catherine Ashton responded to the recent release: “I call on the authorities of Belarus to release unconditionally now also all other remaining political prisoners and to remove all restrictions on the enjoyment of their civil and political rights. This would certainly contribute to possibilities for moving towards improved relations between the EU and Belarus.” As Belarus continues to work toward closer relations with the EU and the Eastern Partnership, the human rights situation has come to the forefront. EU Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele hailed the release of Sannikau and another political activist, though he warned that rights remain a top priority: “[The releases are] a fundamental first step one would naturally expect…The EU has repeatedly stressed that all political prisoners must be released and rehabilitated, only then we can consider normalization of the relations with Minsk.”
Burma’s recent move toward democratic reform has signified a potential opening in a country that scholars and activists consider widely repressive. Burma released over 600 political prisoners in 2011, even though the government had denied their existence. Even so, the Associated Press reported that the cases of rights advocates who have been imprisoned are “in danger of being forgotten amid rising hope for a more open, democratic nation.” While Burma has released hundreds of political prisoners over the past two years, many more remain behind bars. As a result of recent reforms in Burma, the United States (US) and the European Union (EU) have dropped some economic sanctions on the country. Human Rights Watch researcher David Mathieson criticized the US and EU reactions: “It’s obscene that many Western countries are blithely dropping sanctions when there is unfinished business on the political prisoner issue.” From inside the country, Min Ko Naing, one of the leaders of the 1988 student movement, claimed that prisoners were being used by the government as “bargaining chips—releasing some to prove progress, holding others to push the West to ease more sanctions.”
Saudi Arabia released three Shi’a activists on February 22, 2011, who had been detained for two years without being charged. However, six founders of the Islamic Nation Party, the first political party in Saudi Arabia, were arrested earlier that week on February 16. In the past, political activists and family members have protested in response to political detentions. While the Ministry of the Interior had blocked several other demonstrations, a group of 40 women was allowed to protest for the release of their male relatives. According to Human Rights Watch Middle East researcher Christoph Wilck, the Arab Spring will have an effect on the Saudi government’s ability to continue detaining activists: “Recycling political prisoners won’t appease demands for democratic change. While Arab rulers topple and reforms get underway elsewhere in the region, Saudi princes have offered no concessions.”
Bahrain’s arrests of more than 20 pro-democracy activists follow the monarchy’s recent supposed attempt at political reform. The detentions and forthcoming prosecution through the military court system seem to confirm skepticism about promised reforms from activists and scholars. The charges brought against the leader of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, Nabeel Rajab, and co-founder Abdulhadi al-Kawaja have yet to be released. Rajab was hailed for his work “to advance the cause of democratic freedoms and the civil rights of Bahraini citizens” by the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in 2011. According to Democracy Digest, the pro-democracy movement is not interested in removing the monarchy from power but “has been largely and consistently reformist rather than revolutionary, pursuing a constitutional monarchy rather than an Islamic Republic.”
Equatorial Guinea recently imprisoned Dr. Wenceslao Mansogo Alo, a dissident and democracy activist. Although he was convicted of professional negligence, Human Rights Watch Africa Director Daniel Bekele called the prosecution “clearly opportunistic, designed to remove a vocal opponent from the political arena, and not supported by the facts of the incident in question.” Alo serves as the leader of Convergence for Social Democracy (CPDS), the country’s opposition party. A surgeon who specializes in gynecology and obstetrics, he was sentenced to three years in prison, reparations to the family of the patient, and a fee to the government after the death of a patient in surgery.
Indonesia has been the recipient of criticism from the EU regarding its human rights abuses, including detentions and laws in place to limit free speech. Separatists from Moluccas and Papua have been sentenced and imprisoned after participating in peaceful protests. The 100 participants displayed separatist flags, which Indonesia claimed to be a “rebellion,” Human Rights Watch reported. Journalists and critics of the Indonesian government have also suffered arbitrary arrests. Indonesia’s laws prohibit “sowing hatred,” and have been used “to restrict the right to free expression.”
Treatment in Prison
Cuban dissident Wilman Villar Mendoza’s death in January after a hunger strike sparked outrage among human rights activists in and outside of the island. Villar’s relatives told the New York Times that he had died after 50 days without food. Although the Cuban government claimed that Villar had not participated in a hunger strike nor was he a prisoner for political reasons, Villar was arrested after participating in a peaceful protest and his wife was harassed for her association with a group of wives of political prisoners known as the Ladies in White. The US White House released a statement condemning the actions of the Cuban government: ““Villar’s senseless death highlights the ongoing repression of the Cuban people and the plight faced by brave individuals standing up for the universal rights of all Cubans.”
Eritrea’s poor human rights record puts it in with the “worst of the worst,” according to Freedom House. Of the 21 political prisoners who have been held in a secret detention facility for the past ten years, ten have died. The G-15, a group of government and party officials who had sent an open letter to then-President Isaias in 2001 to bring to light “illegal and unconstitutional measures” and to support a program of peaceful reform, have been detained without charges brought against them or the ability to seek trial. Along with the G-15, “all dissenting voices demanding democratic reform in Eritrea were quelled; either arrested, driven into exile, or cowed into silence” by the end of 2001. Prisoners have no access to appellate courts, family members, or lawyers, and the judicial system is now limited to private disputes. Human Rights Watch reported that the prison guards severely mistreat prisoners: “Prisoners are subject to mock drowning, bound or shackled in painful positions, forced to lie in the sun for hours or days (sometimes smeared with sugar or milk), hung from trees, and trussed into tires and rolled around. Severe beatings are administered routinely, alone or combined with other forms of molestation.” In addition, living conditions are unsanitary and prisoners are tortured, have no access to medical care, and are starved and overcrowded, which contributes to prisoner deaths.
In Thailand, the funeral of Ampon Tangnoppakul has brought to light new concerns regarding both laws restricting freedom of speech and the treatment of prisoners. The lese majeste laws criminalize any speech that criticizes the royal family. According to the BBC, the law has been “politicized and used to curb free speech,” as was the case when Tangnoppakul was arrested under the pretext of these laws for an alleged text message “deemed offensive to the queen.” Tangnappakul claimed not to know how to send text messages. His death from liver cancer occurred after the prison system refused to allow him medical access.
Associated Press - Myanmar’s Grim, Unfinished Reform: Hundreds of Political Inmates Languish in Remote Prisons
BBC - Release of dissidents in Belarus brings EU praise
BBC - Thais rally against lese majeste at prisoner funeral
Human Rights Watch - EU-Indonesia Human Rights Dialogue
Human Rights Watch - Saudi Arabia: Political Prisoners Released, New Ones Arrested
Human Rights Watch - Ten Years On
New York Times – Prison Death Brings Outcry Against Cuba
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty - Europeans Welcome Belarusian Political Prisoner Releases, Demand More