The World’s Top Dissidents

A small sample of the thousands of brave men and women leading the global fight for freedom and democracy.


Democracy. Women's rights. Freedom of the press. The rule of law. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, China to Peru, dissidents are working tirelessly for the liberties so many take for granted. Their fight isn't an easy one -- dissidents often pay a price for their work in the form of surveillance, kidnappings, beatings, assassinations, arrests, and torture. FP's May/June issue featured the story of one such dissident, the jailed Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. But it is only the lucky few whose cases echo around the world -- Burma's Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, or Tibet's Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, innumerable people are caught up in the same battle. Here are just a few. 

Democracy. Women’s rights. Freedom of the press. The rule of law. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, China to Peru, dissidents are working tirelessly for the liberties so many take for granted. Their fight isn’t an easy one — dissidents often pay a price for their work in the form of surveillance, kidnappings, beatings, assassinations, arrests, and torture. FP‘s May/June issue featured the story of one such dissident, the jailed Russian billionaire Mikhail Khodorkovsky. But it is only the lucky few whose cases echo around the world — Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi, for example, or Tibet’s Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, innumerable people are caught up in the same battle. Here are just a few. 

Garry Kasparov in 2008.


Lyudmila M. Alexeyeva: A tiny, frail woman of 82 years, Alexeyeva has protested Russian repression for more than 40 years — dating back to Leonid Brezhnev’s premiership of the former Soviet Union. She was first reported to Soviet authorities at age 19 for reading banned poetry. Today, she can be found leading protests on street corners and in prominent plazas, most recently on New Year’s Eve, when she was arrested for leading an unauthorized protest. In January, she told the New York Times that Soviet repression was easier to fight than it is in Vladimir Putin’s era: “There were rules then. They were idiotic rules, but there were rules, and if you knew them you could defend yourself.” She has been attacked by pro-Kremlin supporters in recent months, prompting members of the European Parliament to express their concern and award her the body’s 2009 Sakharov human rights prize, named for famed Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov.

Garry Kasparov: Arguably the world’s greatest chess player, Kasparov’s political career has not been nearly as successful. Founder of the United Civil Front and a leader of the loose opposition coalition the “Other Russia,” Kasparov planned to challenge then-President Vladimir Putin’s handpicked successor, Dmitry Medvedev, in the 2008 Russian presidential election. But he was forced to withdraw in the face of a campaign of harassment that he says was directed by the Kremlin. Kasparov, like many other Putin-era Russian dissidents, has proved much more popular in the West than in Russia. And Putin, now a very powerful prime minister, has proved to be an even tougher opponent than Deep Blue.

(Check out FP‘s 2008 interview with Kasparov here and here.)


Abdelnasser al-Rabbasi: Arrested by plainclothes officers in 2003, after he submitted a short story, “Chaos, Corruption and the Suicide of the Mind in Libya,” to the Arab Times, Rabbasi was sentenced to 15 years in prison. The writer is a relentless critic of the country’s mercurial leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi. The country’s People’s Court accused Rabbasi in 2003 of “dishonoring the guide of the revolution,” aka Qaddafi. But Rabbasi told Human Rights Watch he was imprisoned for “criticizing the situation in my country,” just as Qaddafi now does. “So I don’t know why I was imprisoned. I did not carry a gun; I carried a pen.”


Ayman Nour in 2005.


Mohammed Abbou: A prominent Tunisian lawyer, Abbou was arrested in May 2005 for penning an article slamming the country’s president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and the torture to which prisoners are often subjected. Abbou’s trial took place the following month, and he was convicted, both for denouncing torture and allegedly assaulting a female colleague in 2002. Amnesty International designated Abbou a prisoner of conscience until his release two years later as part of a presidential pardon marking Tunisia’s 50 years of independence. He remains subject to a travel ban.


Ayman Nour: Egypt’s most prominent dissident, Nour is a liberal reformer who calls for an opening of Egypt’s rigid, authoritarian political regime. He challenged President Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election and won 8 percent of the vote, despite widespread irregularities and allegations of fraud. Before the campaign, he was charged by the state with registering forged signatures to get El Ghad, his party, on the ballot. But following U.S. pressure, Mubarak allowed him to stand. Nour lost his parliamentary seat in November of that year, however, and he was quickly put on trial, where he received a five-year prison sentence. In February 2009, he was unexpectedly released, ostensibly for health reasons; he is still subject to a travel ban, however. Nour is believed to be considering another presidential bid in 2011, though under current Egyptian law he would be ineligible to run.


Riad al-Turk: The old man of the Syrian opposition, as he is called, Turk was first arrested in 1952 and has served more than 20 years of his life in prison. Over the past half-century, the 80-year-old has formed a broad coalition, which includes the Muslim Brotherhood, to call for free and fair elections. Turk played a prominent role during the so-called Damascus Spring of 2000, a period of hope for Syrian political liberalization following President Hafez al-Assad’s death. The spring did not last long, however, and Turk was arrested in 2001 after a memorable Al Jazeera interview in which he proclaimed of Assad, “The dictator has died.” Turk was the longtime secretary-general of the Syrian Communist Party, and despite giving up his leadership post in recent years, he remains very active in the organization.


Shirin Ebadi in 2009.


Eynulla Fatullayev: Fatullayev, a journalist for Monitor magazine, first caught his government’s attention in 2007 when he published a controversial article implicating the government in the murder of a colleague, Elmar Huseynov. A few months later, after a blog comment was falsely attributed to him, Fatullayev was charged with terrorism and the incitement of ethnic hatred and sentenced to 10 years in prison. Last December, while in jail, he was hit with a new count of possession of heroin, which he claims was planted on him by prison guards, a tactic used frequently by Azerbaijani authorities, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.


Shirin Ebadi: The most famous Iranian dissident, Ebadi is the founder of the Defenders of Human Rights Center and the winner of the 2003 Nobel Peace Prize “for her efforts for democracy and human rights.” In 1975, in the beginning of her storied career, Ebadi was the first Iranian woman to serve as a judge. She lost her judgeship, however, after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when she was relegated to administrative duties. A noted human rights lawyer, she has defended numerous clients who were unfairly prosecuted by the state over the last 30 years, including dozens of women who had been arrested for protesting discriminatory gender laws. Ebadi has been consistently targeted by the Iranian government throughout her career and is an avid supporter of the green movement, a position that sent her into self-imposed exile in Britain following last year’s disputed presidential election.

(Check out FP‘s 2009 interview with Ebadi.)

Akbar Ganji: Once described as the Iranian Vaclav Havel by British human rights group Article 19, journalist Ganji was imprisoned from 2001 to 2006 for exposing state involvement in the killings of jailed Iranian dissidents — now known as the “Chain Murders.” He served in the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in the 1980s, but his disillusionment with the Islamic Revolution’s path transformed him into Iran’s preeminent investigative journalist. A champion of secular, liberal democracy, Ganji left Iran after his release from prison in 2006.

(Check out FP‘s 2009 interview with Ganji.)


Hina Jilani in 2007.


Yusuf Jumaev: Jumaev is a well-known Uzbek poet who was arrested on charges of “insult” and “resisting arrest” after he called for President Islam Karimov’s resignation before the December 2007 presidential election. He was sentenced to five years in prison and has already faced torture by prison guards. Originally held in a minimum-security facility, he was transferred to the notorious Jaslyk Prison in July 2008.


Yevgeny Zhovtis: The founding director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and the Rule of Law, Zhovtis has fervently advocated for freedom of religion and assembly, as well as democratic reform. He was convicted of manslaughter in September in what international observers saw as a farcical trial: His lawyer was not permitted to enter any evidence or call witnesses to testify on Zhovtis’s behalf. He was sentenced to four years in prison.


Hina Jilani: Jilani and her sister Asma Jahangir have been warriors for human rights in Pakistan since the 1980s when they were arrested for protesting gender-discriminatory legislation. Jilani, an advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, has warned that a return to military rule could start a process of Balkanization in Pakistan. During her career, she has held numerous positions with international organizations and served as the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative on the situation of human rights defenders from 2000 to 2008.


Poster of Liu Xiaobo, 2010.


Liu Xiaobo: One of the most famous Chinese human rights activists, Liu began his dissent when, after spending much of the 1980s lecturing at Beijing Normal University, he participated in the march on Tiananmen Square. Liu was punished with a 21-month prison sentence for that first offense. More recently, in December 2008, Liu signed Charter 08, a democratic manifesto that China’s liberal intelligentsia was preparing to submit to the government in Beijing. Two days before the manifesto’s Dec. 10 release — selected to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights — Chinese police detained and later arrested Liu on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power.” A Chinese court convicted him and laid down an 11-year prison sentence on Christmas Day, 2008.

Gao Zhisheng: The New York Times recently described Gao as “one of China’s most high-profile human rights lawyers” — a surprising appellation for someone China’s Justice Ministry had honored just nine years earlier as one of the country’s 10 best lawyers. In the decade since that pronouncement, Gao has defended many prominent human rights activists in court. Such activities soon earned him the ire of the Chinese government, which took to harassing him with the same vigor it had previously reserved for his clients. In 2006, Gao evaded what Amnesty International believes to have been a government-sponsored assassination attempt. After the botched hit, the Chinese police repeatedly detained and arrested Gao until February 2009, when he disappeared. Gao resurfaced recently, but seemed a broken man. In an interview this month, he announced that he would be abandoning any future political activity.

Others of note: Hu Jia, a Beijing-based writer whose criticism of Chinese human rights abuses, detailed in “The Real China and the Olympics,” earned him a 3½ year prison sentence in April 2009; Dhondup Wangchen, a Tibetan filmmaker who was arrested in March 2008; and Tan Zuoren, a writer whom Beijing arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for attempting to conduct an independent investigation into the collapse of poorly built government schools during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake.


Aung San Suu Kyi in 1999.


Aung San Suu Kyi: Few global dissidents are as well known as Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient whose long and storied career as a democratic activist in Burma has inspired thousands to support her in solidarity. After participating in a massive street protest of students against the dictatorship on Aug. 8, 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi went on to found Burma’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won the 1990 general election with 82 percent of the vote. Before Aung San Suu Kyi could assume the premiership, however, the Burmese junta nullified the election results and placed her under house arrest, where she has more or less been ever since. Recently, Aung San Suu Kyi and other senior NLD leaders decided to boycott the first round of Burma’s general election — the first to be held in decades — citing an unjust electoral process.

Paw Oo Tun: Popularly known as, Min Ko Naing, a nom de guerre meaning “conqueror of kings,” Paw Oo Tun is one of Burma’s longest-fighting dissidents. He rose to prominence in 1988 when he founded the All Burma Federation of Student Unions, a Burmese student group dedicated to the overthrow of the military junta. That same year, Paw Oo Tun was jailed for 15 years after being arrested by Burmese police for participating in the 1988 uprising. Three years after his 2004 release, Paw was again arrested for politically subversive activities. This time, however, he received a sentence of 65 years in solitary confinement. He is serving out his sentence in Shan state’s Kengtung prison.


Sima Samar: A physician by training — and the first ethnically Hazara woman to become one — Samar has been a tireless champion of women’s rights and women’s health for the last quarter-century. After her husband was arrested by the Afghan communist regime in 1984, Samar fled to Pakistan, where she founded the Shuhada Organization, an NGO that works to increase Afghan women’s access to health care and improve the state of medical knowledge in Afghanistan. Despite receiving death threats from the Taliban, she returned to Afghanistan in 2002 as the minister for women’s affairs. Unfortunately, her time in that post was short-lived; she was forced to resign after her liberal gender policies were met with resistance from her conservative male colleagues. Currently, Samar chairs the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, where she continues to work on women’s as well as more general human rights issues.


Anwar Ibrahim in 2009.


Arnold Tsunga: Despite constant harassment from the police, which has included multiple kidnappings and beatings, Tsunga has made a career fighting against the regime of Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. A highly respected lawyer and human rights advocate, Tsunga formerly served as the executive director of the Zimbabwe Lawyers for Human Rights, an NGO that seeks to ensure free and fair elections, freedom of speech, and the protection of constitutionally enshrined rights in Zimbabwe. He serves as a trustee for Voice of the People, a broadcasting trust that seeks to expose government corruption and illegal activity, and also heads the International Commission of Jurists’ Africa program.


Gopalan Nair: Nair, a former opposition politician, is known throughout Singapore’s embattled blogosphere for his fierce promotion of human rights and blunt criticism of founding leader and current “minister mentor” Lee Kuan Yew. In September 2008, Nair was sentenced to three months in jail for defaming a judge in a blog entry. On March 6, he published a hoax post on his blog indicating that Lee had suffered a heart attack and had been brought to Singapore General Hospital. Nair’s motive? It was, he says, “a deliberate attempt to highlight how tenuous Singapore really is, with all power in the island vested in one man, and the dire consequences to the island of his parting. And especially so as [Lee] is 87.” Nair lives in California and has been a U.S. citizen since 2004.


Anwar Ibrahim: Anwar is one of the country’s most famous and controversial politicians. Once a protégé of former Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, the two had a falling out in the late 1990s, and Anwar emerged as leader of the Malaysian opposition. In this capacity, he has continuously pressed the Malaysian government to become more democratic and combat corruption. Throughout the past decade, Anwar has pushed for improvements in governance-related issues, especially the need for a more independent judiciary. In 1998 and again in 2008, Anwar was arrested and charged with what are widely seen as bogus sodomy crimes invented by the government to silence him.

(Check out FP‘s 2008 interview with Anwar.)

Zainah Anwar: Zainah has gained fame in Malaysia for her leadership of NGOs focused on promoting women’s rights. The daughter of Anwar bin Abdul Malik, a well-known Malaysian politician, she rose to prominence in 1990s when she assumed the leadership of Sisters in Islam, a Malaysian organization of Muslim women that promotes women’s rights under sharia. Although she has since relinquished that role, she continues to work to expand women’s rights in Islamic society by speaking out around the world.

BOB LOW/AFP/Getty Images

Olara Otunnu in 2002.


Olara Otunnu: Otunnu is a prominent Ugandan lawyer, politician, and advocate for children’s rights. He has worked internationally on these themes for decades; from 1990 to 1998, Otunnu served as president of the International Peace Academy (a think tank later renamed the International Peace Institute), and he was the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for children and armed conflict from 1997 to 2005. At home, he leads the Uganda Peoples Congress and is preparing to challenge incumbent Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni in the next general election, scheduled for February 2011. On April 19 police interrogated Otunnu for allegedly accusing the president of intentionally prolonging the country’s civil war against the Lord’s Resistance Army, a radical militant group based in northern Uganda.


Hassan Shire Sheikh: Originally based in his native Somalia, Sheikh is today a well-known human rights activist across the Horn of Africa. After being forced to flee Somalia under government pressure, Sheikh worked at the African Human Rights Defenders Project at York University from 2003 to 2005, where he published reports exposing human rights abuses in northeast Africa, including Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania. Since 2005, Sheikh has served as executive director of the East and Horn of Africa Human Rights Defenders Project, based in Kampala, Uganda, where he assesses regional states’ compliance with international human rights standards.

Democratic Republic of the Congo

Golden Misabiko: Misabiko is president of the Katanga province chapter of the African Association for the Protection of Human Rights, an all-purpose NGO dedicated to campaigning against torture, providing legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses, and compelling the government in Kinshasa to respect its international human rights obligations. Misabiko was arrested in July 2009 after his organization released a report alleging labor exploitation at uranium mines in the town of Shinkolobwe.

Natalie Behring-Chisholm/Getty Images

Yoani Sánchez in 2008.



Yoani Sánchez: Born in Havana in 1975, Sánchez is best known for Generación Y, a blog she writes about daily life under the political oppression of the Cuban government. She evades the censorship of Raúl Castro’s government by emailing her entries to friends and associates outside the country, who then post them online. Although Sánchez has suffered harassment and intimidation by the Cuban government — she described a 2009 episode in which she claims to have been abducted and beaten by government thugs — she nevertheless continues to write, drawing attention to the political plight of Cubans living under the Castro regime.


Francisco Soberón: Soberón is most famous in Peru for his 1985 founding of the Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos, a human rights NGO headquartered in Lima. The organization’s initial purpose was to curb abuses by the Peruvian military and various insurgent groups during the country’s civil war. Today, it has embraced the broader agenda of improving Peru’s judicial system and improving the poor’s knowledge of their rights. In 2008, Soberón accused President Alan García’s government of manipulating public opinion by denouncing organizations as diverse as labor unions and environmental NGOs as terrorist groups in an effort to stigmatize them and muffle dissent. García hasn’t taken such accusations lightly, calling Soberón a traitor, according to Reuters.


Frank La Rue: The founder of one of Guatemala’s first human rights NGOs, the Center for Legal Action on Human Rights (CALDH), La Rue is among Guatemala’s most impassioned human rights activists. La Rue and CALDH provide technical legal advice to the many Guatemalan communities that brought cases in 2001 against former presidents Gen. Romeo Lucas García and Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, both of whom were implicitly found guilty of committing genocide by Guatemala’s Historical Clarification Commission.


Guillermo Zuloaga in 2009.


Guillermo Zuloaga: Zuloaga, owner of Globovisión, one the few independent television news stations still operating in Venezuela, has long been known as a vocal critic of President Hugo Chávez and his authoritarian tendencies. Since 2002, when Zuloaga refused to show images of pro-Chávez demonstrators protesting against Pedro Carmona’s short-lived coup (Chávez retook power two days later), tension between Zuloaga and Chávez has been palpable. Zuloaga’s station regularly reports on government corruption and attempts to clamp down on media freedom. In return, government regulatory agencies have repeatedly filed complaints against Globovisión. On March 25, Chávez took the extraordinary step of ordering military intelligence officials to arrest Zuloaga. He has since been freed, but remains unable to leave the country until an investigation into critical remarks he made about Chávez’s attempts to stifle media freedom have concluded.


Iryna Vidanava: Some former Soviet republics have made modest strides in liberalizing their political culture, but Belarus is not one of them. Minsk is infamous for its harassment and intimidation of local media and curtailing freedom of speech — both areas in which Vidanava has fought back forcefully. Vidanava is the founder and editor in chief of 34 Multimedia Magazine, a publication aimed at promoting creativity, dissent, and democratic values in Belarusian young adults. (See here for a sample of her work.) It’s tough going: After years of police harassment, in 2005 Minsk finally decided to simply shut down 34 Multimedia Magazine. Yet Vidanava perseveres. In 2007, she founded CDMAG, a multimedia youth magazine published on compact disc that won the 2007 Gerd Bucerius Prize for press freedom in Eastern Europe.


Le Cong Dinh: Vietnamese lawyer Dinh has spent much of the past decade running a private law practice and defending prominent Vietnamese political dissidents and humans rights activists. His clients have included other human rights lawyers, such as Nguyen Van Dai and Le Thi Cong Nhan, as well as dissident journalists like blogger Nguyen Van Hai. In 2007, Dinh landed himself in hot water with the Vietnamese authorities when he argued before a court that Article 88 of the Vietnamese penal code — which effectively criminalizes peaceful political dissent and allows state prosecutors to charge dissidents with “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam” — was unconstitutional and violated international human rights treaties. Ironically, it was this very provision of the penal code that the Vietnamese government used in 2009 to arrest, try, and convict Dinh, who is now serving a five-year prison sentence.


J.S. Tissainayagam in 2009.


Kamala Chandrakirana: In 1998, Chandrakirana set up the National Commission on Violence Against Women, an NGO meant to improve women’s status in Indonesian society. She has since founded the Indonesian Working Group for the Eradication of Structural Poverty as well as JARI Indonesia, an NGO that fights government graft.

Sri Lanka

J.S. Tissainayagam: This provocative Sri Lankan journalist has been an active critic of his government’s policy toward Tamil citizens, arousing considerable domestic controversy. After publishing a pair of articles in 2006 that accused the Sri Lankan government of withholding food and other critical supplies from endangered Tamil populations, Tissainayagam was arrested in March 2008 and charged with attempting to incite violence and accepting funding from the Tamil Tigers, a separatist insurgent group later put down by a no-holds-barred military offensive in 2009. Last August, Tissainayagam was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in jail, but after filing an appeal, he was released on bail in January. Tissainayagam was pardoned just last week, though its unknown what restrictions remain on his freedom of speech and movement.


Mesfin Hagos: First a member of the Eritrean Liberation Front and later a founding member of the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, Hagos has played a major role in Eritrean politics for much of the second half of the 20th century. Hagos was a close friend and political ally of President Isaias Afewerki for a time, but the two had a falling out in 2001 when Hagos joined G-15, an Eritrean political group vocally opposed to Afewerki’s postponing of elections, disregard for the Eritrean Constitution, and handling of the Eritrean-Ethiopian War. In response to threats of arrest against G-15 members, Hagos fled Eritrea and currently lives in exile in Britain, where he remains an active member of the opposition in exile.

Ishara S. KODIKARA/AFP/Getty Images

Andrew Swift is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.
Peter Williams is an editorial researcher at FP.

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