Hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us for this conversation about – and on the behalf of – political prisoners. My thanks to Foreign Minister Landsbergis for co-hosting this event with us, and to Under Secretary Zeya for moderating.
Four speakers will be sharing their stories today:
Tatsiana Kohmich, the sister of Maria Kalesnikava, a leader of Belarus’s democratic opposition who has spent the last 15 months in prison.
Rayhan Asat, the sister of Ekpar Asat, a Uyghur tech entrepreneur who has been held in solitary confinement in China since 2019.
Victoria Cardenas, the wife of Juan Sebastian Chamorro, a Nicaraguan opposition politician who was a candidate in the presidential election until he was arrested in June.
And Peter Biar Ajak, an economist and peace activist who was imprisoned from 2018 to 2020 by the government of South Sudan.
These are difficult experiences to share, whether for former prisoners, or those whose loved ones are being unjustly detained right now. I’m grateful to each of you for being willing to speak, and for your tenacity in working for the freedom of others.
It’s estimated that there are currently more than a million political prisoners around the world. Every one of them has family members and friends like these individuals. And more individuals are being unjustly detained or convicted in sham trials with each passing day, as we saw earlier this week with the sentence against Aung San Suu Kyi.
These people are held without just cause, often because they peacefully exercised their human rights – like freedom of expression – or defended the rights of others. They may have organized an opposition party. Reported on abuse and corruption. Taken part in a peaceful protest.
Other times, they are targeted simply because of who they are – based on their race or religion, the language they speak, who they love, their ethnic identity. Minority groups are often disproportionally represented among political prisoners.
And their imprisonment is enabled by Orwellian legal systems designed to target peaceful protesters or government critics – with euphemisms like “pre-criminal dangerousness” in Cuba or “subversion of state power” in China. Individuals are sentenced by courts that lack independence, in trials that are closed off to outside observers.
No matter what the process, their imprisonment is devastating and dehumanizing, for prisoners, their families, their communities.
Prisoners are often subjected to torture and routinely kept in inhumane conditions and denied medical treatment. Maria described her experience so far in Belarusian prisons as moving between – quote – “hot and then cold cells, without air or light, without people.”
It’s harrowing for prisoners’ friends and families, too. They are often denied information about their loved ones, or else forbidden from visiting, which is its own form of punishment. Some family members or colleagues are punished by association. In some cases of transnational repression, some governments are even imprisoning family members and colleagues back home to target dissidents who have moved abroad.
For many prisoners, their detention is designed explicitly to stop critically important work they were doing to serve societies – such as political or union organizing, reporting, or advocacy. And it sends a clear message to their colleagues that the same thing could happen to them.
When countries hold political prisoners, they create climates of fear and self-censorship, and they stifle political participation. Often, these abuses occur alongside other forms of repression, like crackdowns on the independent media and human rights groups. And this is important to note: people are held as political prisoners all around the world. In fact, the State Department’s latest Human Rights Report contains evidence of more than 65 countries holding political prisoners.
So many of these individuals are their country’s best and brightest hope for a future marked by democracy and respect for human rights. Through imprisoning political prisoners, autocrats are quashing democratic hopes and ambitions. That’s why it’s important that all countries stand firmly against the detention of political prisoners – no matter where they are held – and work together to free them.
Let me share a few ways that we do this, and urge other countries to join us: We call for the release of political prisoners, meet with their families and colleagues, monitor trials, and publish reports to share information about individuals and their cases.
In public and in private, we urge all countries – regardless of our relationship with them – to free political prisoners.
And we work to build effective pressure through multilateral institutions like the UN Human Rights Council and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
We also work closely with partners like Lithuania, our co-host in today’s event, who is a leading advocate for political prisoners and democracy. Our countries collaborate to hold accountable those who detain political prisoners, including the coordinated sanctions against the Lukashenka regime that the United States and the European Union announced last week.
We also partner with human rights organizations, lawyers for individual detainees, and other civil society actors to bring these cases to light, including through our annual human rights report.
But a big part of why we’re holding this session is that we know we have to do better. We have to find new ways to mobilize bigger coalitions and exert more effective pressure. Because we know that sustained pressure can work.
Natan Sharansky was a Soviet dissident falsely accused of spying and detained for nine years in jail. While he was imprisoned, his wife, Avital, who was shy by nature, traveled the globe campaigning for his release. She held rallies, wrote op-eds, and met with anyone who would help, from international leaders to local groups. That included the U.S. Government, which pushed for his release. He was eventually freed in 1986.
Earlier this year, I met with Natan, who relayed what he has called his “confrontation with evil,” but also his perpetual gratitude for his freedom – and to those who fought for it. His very presence, and that of people like Peter who have also been released, is a testament to why we must not give up. And to all that these individuals can contribute when their unjust imprisonment is over.
I want to thank everyone here for their work helping political prisoners around the world. And I look forward to continuing our collaboration, and seeing the progress that we will make together.