Planet Gulag

The world has many Liu Xiaobos. Here are 15 who matter.

Getty Images
Getty Images
Getty Images

For the first time since 1936, when the Nazis barred German honoree Carl von Ossietzky from leaving the concentration camp where he was imprisoned, there will be no one in attendance to receive the Nobel Peace Prize this year. The Norwegian Nobel Committee has been forced to cancel the awards portion of the prize ceremonies on Dec. 10 because this year’s laureate, Liu Xiaobo, is currently languishing in a Chinese prison for the alleged “crime” of advocating democracy in the country. To add insult to injury, Chinese authorities have also barred Liu’s family members from traveling to Oslo to accept the award on his behalf.

Liu is just one example of hundreds of innocent men and women around the world who are currently imprisoned because of their political views or for their defense of human rights. All over the globe, citizens who dare criticize repressive, nondemocratic regimes or call attention to human rights violations in their countries are regularly subjected to fraudulent criminal charges, unfair trials, and lengthy prison sentences. In commemoration of International Human Rights Day, here is a small list of some of the most prominent political prisoners from around the world


Abdeljalil al-Singace, a blogger, academic, and head of an unauthorized Shiite opposition group, has been outspoken in his criticism of the systematic use of torture in Bahrain’s prisons, discrimination against the country’s Shiite population, and the appalling state of fundamental freedoms in Bahrain. On Aug. 13, upon returning from a human rights conference in Britain, where he also addressed the House of Lords on human rights violations and environmental degradation in Bahrain, he was arrested at the airport in Muharraq.

He has been charged with defaming the government and judicial authorities, as well as forming an illegal organization with the objective of overthrowing the government. According to Singace’s lawyers, he and 22 additional activists claim that they are being beaten, denied sleep, and forced to stand for long periods of time. Singace’s trial is ongoing.


In October 2005, Avtuhovich, a prominent businessman and pro-democracy activist, was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to three-and-a-half years’ imprisonment. Although he was one of six political prisoners released in 2008 following a series of harsh sanctions passed by the United States and the European Union, he was arrested for the second time in 2009 and sentenced to five years in prison for weapons possession, a charge that his supporters claim was fabricated.

His health has deteriorated significantly while in prison as a result of numerous hunger strikes and the lack of adequate medical attention. Avtuhovich has called for democratic change in Belarus and continues to urge his compatriots to speak out against Aleksandr Lukashenko’s regime.

(Banner reads: “Freedom to Avtuhovich!”)



Burma freed its most prominent political activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, from house arrest this November. But more than 2,100 Burmese political activists continue to languish in prison. One of the best-known is Buddhist monk and former child soldier U Gambira, who at the age of 29 founded the All-Burma Monks Alliance. The group played a leading role in organizing the September 2007 protests against the Burmese junta. During the government crackdown that followed the protests, U Gambira was placed on a wanted list, went into hiding, and was eventually arrested.

He received a 63-year prison sentence in a closed trial. Since his imprisonment, he has been defrocked and tortured, causing his health to suffer. Despite these conditions, U Gambira continues to call for the release of all political prisoners, leads Buddhist protest chants from his cell, and has undertaken a hunger strike.


Hu Jia was director of June Fourth Heritage & Culture Association, a nonprofit group that conducts research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom, and human rights in China. Additionally he has been involved with a number of organizations promoting democracy, highlighting environmental abuses, and raising awareness of HIV/AIDS in China. Through his blog he has also tracked cases of detentions and trials of Chinese activists and organized campaigns to release political prisoners. On Dec. 27, 2007, he was detained as part of a crackdown on dissidents that began when peasant leaders in several Chinese provinces issued a manifesto demanding broader land rights for peasants whose property had been confiscated for development.

At his trial in March 2008, Hu pleaded not guilty on charges of “inciting subversion of state power.” On April 3, 2008, he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years imprisonment. For his activism, Hu received the European Parliament’s Sakharove Prize for Freedom of Thought in December 2008.



Óscar Elías Biscet, a physician, is the founder and president of the Cuba-based Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, which advocates for a peaceful transition to a multiparty democracy and the release of political prisoners. Arrested and sentenced during the “Black Spring” of 2003, Biscet is part of the “Group of 75” activists who were punished for defending human rights and democratic values.

This July, the Cuban government announced its plan to release Biscet and several other political prisoners. But after releasing 41 individuals into exile and allowing one detainee to stay on the island for humanitarian reasons, Cuba failed to meet its Nov. 7 deadline for releasing all 52 prisoners. The 11 who remain in prison — including Biscet — have refused to accept exile from Cuba.

The Gambia

On Sept. 6, a Gambian court indefinitely suspended Africa in Democracy and Good Governance (ADG), a local human rights NGO, from operating in the country and sentenced Nwakaeme, its director of programs, to six months’ hard labor on the charge of giving false information to a public officer. In addition to his work at ADG, which included lobbying for greater rights for women and children and supporting anti-corruption efforts, Nwakaeme was publisher of the privately owned quarterly magazine Windows on Africa, which has been reporting on human rights violations in the country.

Nwakaeme had already been arrested and held on remand seven months before ADG’s suspension. It is believed that his arrest was connected to a letter he wrote to President Yahya Jammeh requesting that the president make his daughter a goodwill ambassador to the NGO. Nwakaeme has filed an appeal to challenge his conviction and sentencing.

Paul Rios/flickr


Nasrin Sotoudeh is an Iranian human rights lawyer who has been held in Evin prison since Sept. 4. She is being tried behind closed doors on charges of distributing anti-state propaganda and conspiracy to commit crimes against national security. She was initially placed in solitary confinement and deprived of all visits, and she has since gone on two hunger strikes to protest her treatment.

Sotoudeh is a colleague of attorney and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi and has defended her in numerous cases. She has also represented human rights activists, juveniles on capital charges, and abused children. Her case is one of a number of recent attacks on human rights lawyers by the Iranian regime. Others include Mohammad Oliyaeifar, a lawyer who is also one of Sotoudeh’s clients, and Mohammad Seifzadeh, co-founder of the Defenders of Human Rights with Ebadi, who has been sentenced to nine years in prison with a 10-year ban on practicing law after his release. In recent weeks, five human rights lawyers were arbitrarily arrested, three of whom remain in prison. Although the Iranian regime denies that it holds political prisoners, human rights groups have been able to identify at least 800 to date.



Yevgeny Zhovtis was director of the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights and Rule of Law, the largest human rights organization in Kazakhstan, which monitors fundamental freedoms in the country, produces analytical reports, and conducts human rights education. On Sept. 3, 2009, he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment for vehicular manslaughter after he was involved in a car crash that resulted in the death of a young man. His trial was marred by procedural flaws, including a refusal by the presiding judge to admit expert testimony that would have shown that Zhovtis violated no traffic laws and could not have avoided the accident, and the court’s failure to inform him that he would be treated as a defendant rather than a witness until two weeks into the investigation.

The court allowed Zhovtis’s defense team only 40 minutes to prepare itsfinal statements, after which the court produced an 11-page sentencing document in a matter of 15 minutes. Subsequent appeals hearings upheld the original sentence.

Freedom House


On June 15, in the aftermath of the ethnic unrest that crippled much southern Kyrgyzstan, Askarov, a well-known ethnically Uzbek human rights defender and head of the organization “Air,” was arrested and charged with “arousing national hatred and organizing mass disorder” leading to the death of a police officer. The charges against him were based on seemingly weak witness testimony, but according to human rights groups, resulted from video footage: Askarov reportedly captured police officers opening fire on unarmed civilians and doing nothing to stop marauding crowds.

Authorities detained Askarov for three days without charging him, despite a Kyrgyz law stating that an individual can only be held two days without being charged with an offense. Photographs obtained by his lawyer suggest that he was tortured while in detainment. During his trial, relatives of the deceased police officer physically and verbally attacked Askarov and his lawyers while court monitors stood idly by. Askarov received a sentence of life imprisonment, which was upheld by a subsequent appeals hearing marred by limited access to defense witnesses, weak evidence, and no access to medical care for the critically ill prisoner.


On July 2, 2003, Lebedev, director of Group Menatep, a holdings company that was the majority shareholder of the Yukos oil company, was arrested from his hospital bed on charges of tax evasion, embezzlement, and fraud. This arrest was widely seen as a warning to Khodorkovsky, then president of Yukos. A mere four months later, on Oct. 25, 2003, Khodorkovsky — who had become an influential advocate for economic and political reform — was arrested at gunpoint on a private plane, on the same charges.

On May 31, 2005, both men were found guilty and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment, despite a ruling by the Supreme Court stating that Lebedev’s arrest was illegal. Both men are subject to inhumane and degrading treatment in prison. Lebedev has repeatedly been refused independent medical attention despite his failing health. Both men are currently on trial together facing new embezzlement charges. If found guilty, both men could receive sentences of an additional 14 years in prison on top of the eight years they have already served. From prison, Khodorkovsky has gained significant attention writing and speaking out against Russia’s current authoritarian path and arguing for greater adherence to the rule of law.



Ntakirutinka, a former minister in the Rwandan government, is serving a 10-year prison sentence on charges of inciting civil disobedience and association with criminal elements. Ntakirutinka was arrested along with eight others in April 2002. The government claimed that the nine men had been organizing secret meetings with the objective of disturbing public order, stirring up civil conflict, and targeting members of the government for assassination. But many believe, however, that Ntakirutinka was targeted because he was a pivotal figure in the establishment of a new political party, the Democratic Party for Renewal.

All the men, with the exception of Ntakirutinka, received five-year prison sentences. During the trial, the defendants were allowed to present a limited number of witnesses, and the defense was denied the opportunity to conduct full cross-examinations of prosecution witnesses. The quality of evidence was low and several witness statements were reportedly extracted by torture. Ntakirutinka’s arrest and imprisonment is part of a well-documented crackdown against the opposition by the Rwandan government.


Al-Maleh, a longtime Syrian human rights activist and lawyer, was detained by Syrian authorities on Oct. 14, 2009. On July 4 of this year, a military tribunal sentenced him to three years in prison on charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false information that weakens the nation’s morale.” His arrest occurred just two days after he appeared on television to speak out against a government crackdown on pro-democracy activists, including the arrest of his client, Muhannad al-Hassani, a human rights lawyer and activist who has been wrongfully imprisoned since 2009.

In the interview, Maleh also objected to the Syrian government’s continued use of its “state of emergency,” which has been in place since 1963 and has enabled the government to prosecute and imprison members of the political opposition and human rights activists without just cause. Syria is currently holding between 2,500 and 3,000 political prisoners, including 1,500 in the infamous Saydnaya Military Prison, where 52 inmates went missing after clashes between inmates and military police in 2008.

Freedom House


One of Uzbekistan’s most renowned poets, Juma has been challenging President Islam Karimov in his writing and by organizing street protests since Uzbekistan gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, particularly after the 2005 Andijan massacre, during which Karimov’s troops shot crowds of peaceful protesters.

In December 2007, following a street protest led by Juma, law enforcement personnel surrounded his house and fired on it. A week later, he was arrested for “intending to inflict serious bodily injury” and for “resisting authority.” Reports from credible sources close to Juma state that prison personnel regularly subject Juma to torture, including food deprivation and beatings from detainment officials and fellow prisoners (at the former’s behest).


As a Buddhist monk and supreme patriarch of the Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam, Thich Quang Do has devoted his life to the advancement of justice, nonviolence, tolerance, and compassion. Through petitions, Thich Quang Do has challenged authorities to engage in dialogue on democratic reform, pluralism, freedom of religion, human rights, and national reconciliation. A prominent figure in the protest movement against the anti-Buddhist policies of the Ngo Dinh Diem regime in the south, Thich Quang Do was arrested for the first time in 1963 during a massive police sweep and brutally tortured. He has continually refused to remain silent about the struggle for freedom in Vietnam and, as a consequence, since 1975 has been either in prison, in remote exile, or under house arrest. Although he has been under indefinite house arrest since October 2003 with little or no access to visitors, a video interview with him was recently taped in secret and featured at the Oslo Freedom Forum. While estimates on the number of political prisoners and detainees in Vietnam vary, they generally range from several dozen up into the hundreds.



Information about North Korea, one of the few remaining Stalinist regimes, is hard to come by. With no human rights organizations allowed into the country, a strictly controlled state-run media, and very little citizen access to the Internet or news from the outside world, North Korea is the most secretive society in the world.

Nonetheless, based on testimonies from the estimated 300,000 North Koreans who have been able to escape, as well as satellite evidence, it is known that the Pyongyang regime runs the world’s most extensive system of gulags, or Kwan li so, incarcerating as many as 200,000 unknown political prisoners spread out across six large prison camps. Testimonies from defectors describe the treatment of these prisoners in terms that amount to crimes against humanity, including systematic torture, public executions, slave labor, and forced abortions. Moreover, the regime practices “guilt by association,” incarcerating family members of political prisoners, including children, for up to three generations.


Freedom House is an independent democracy watchdog organization based in Washington, D.C.

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