On the Occasion of the 2023 World Liberty Congress Assembly, Félix Maradiaga and Jianli Yang write on why it is Important to support political prisoners and their families.
Countless human rights activists living under autocratic regimes are fighting for freedom and democracy at enormous personal risk, facing arrest, imprisonment, torture, and the constant fear of being forever separated from their loved ones. Shortly after his third arrest in 2008, Chinese dissident and 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo said in a statement: “I have long been aware that when an independent intellectual stands up to an autocratic state, step one toward freedom is often a step into prison. Now I am taking that step; and true freedom is that much nearer.”
Both authors of this article have taken this step in their respective homelands of China and Nicaragua, and both owe their freedom to international advocacy. We are therefore qualified to testify to the importance of supporting political prisoners and their families.
First, it is a moral imperative. Political prisoners are individuals who bravely and selflessly sacrifice their freedom for their deeply held belief in humanity, for speaking out against tyrannical power, and for advocating social and political change for the betterment of their compatriots. According to the U.S. State Department, there are currently more than one million political prisoners worldwide. In countries around the globe, buried in prison cells, in sunless living graves, are scores of conscientious men and women whose only ray of hope is a beacon of freedom they know only from the dedicated people of free democracies. The democratic world must stand in solidarity with them and their families for reasons rooted in the fundamental principles of human rights, justice, and the preservation of human dignity. Their struggles call upon us to recognize our shared responsibility for the well-being of all, and remind us that the struggle for justice and freedom is a moral obligation that transcends national boundaries, religions, and political ideologies. Our solidarity with prisoners of conscience binds us together in a meaningful way that unites rather than divides us.
It is also strategic.
Scholars often speak of social, economic, and cultural preconditions for the democratization of autocratic regimes. In our view, four necessary conditions must be met simultaneously for there to be a chance of achieving meaningful democratic change:
(1) There must be strong dissatisfaction among the masses with the regime’s political status quo;
(2) A viable democratic opposition must emerge as a result of (1);
(3) A political rift must occur within the autocratic regime; and
(4) There must be broad international support. The world’s democracies must believe that the regime’s pro-democracy opposition is viable and therefore be willing to support the country’s democratization on the basis of universal liberal values as well as for strategic considerations.
While these four conditions are all equally important and mutually reinforcing, the most immediate and imperative responsibility for us, as democracy activists, is to build a viable democratic opposition in our respective homelands, for which a recognizable and relatively stable group of leaders is key. Leaders must be free, because those who are imprisoned can do little or nothing in this regard. Advocating for the release of political prisoners is thus an essential step in establishing a viable democratic opposition and, in turn, bringing about democratic change.
Prisoners of conscience typically suffer under brutal conditions (including beatings, rape, forced labour, and psychological abuse) for years or even decades before they are finally released. To survive prolonged inhumane imprisonment, they need to know that they’re not alone and that freedom fighters around the world support them and their cause. International solidarity with political prisoners can give them this much-needed reassurance and, more importantly, hope. Autocratic regimes always try to leverage the prisoners’ loved ones to keep them in line. Almost all political prisoners share a sense of guilt toward their families, who often live in misery under persecution, surveillance, and financial hardship.
Autocratic regimes often cause family members of political prisoners to lose their jobs, depriving them of economic support. Authorities also often prohibit the children of prisoners from attending school, robbing them of a normal, carefree childhood. This, in turn, takes a heavy toll on the prisoners. To stifle democratic opposition, autocracies use the misery of prisoners as a weapon to deter others from following their example. We must provide moral support and concrete physical assistance to political prisoners and their families. By doing so, we can strategically lower the emotional and financial toll on prisoners (indeed, all dissidents) and their families who pay a high price for their beliefs, speech, and actions. The more the price is lowered, the more people will join this virtuous struggle for change. When the price is lowered to the point where the heroic work originally done by prisoners of conscience becomes work that can be done by ordinary citizens, change will be inevitable.
The plight of political prisoners reminds us that people’s struggle for justice and freedom is ongoing. It is our responsibility to ensure that their voices are heard, their rights are protected, their families are supported, their hopes for freedom are nurtured, and their causes are championed. This solidarity will reinforce the idea that the well-being of one is linked to the well-being of all, fostering a sense of common humanity and a moral commitment to the betterment of society as a whole.
This article has been co-authored by Félix Maradiaga and Jianli Yang.
Félix Maradiaga, a former political prisoner of Nicaragua (2021-2023), is a Nicaraguan academic, political activist, and human rights defender. He is a member of the Aspen Global Leadership Network, a worldwide community of entrepreneurial leaders.
Jianli Yang, a Tiananmen Massacre survivor and former political prisoner of China (2002-2005), is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China and the author of For Us, The Living: A Journey to Shine the Light on Truth.