An expert's point of view on a current event.

Unsung Heroes

Some of the world's bravest dissidents are pursuing their fight against injustice with little attention from the outside world. But that doesn't mean they aren't worth knowing about. Here's a list of remarkable people who rarely make it into the headlines.



Ibrahim Sharif, Bahrain

The head of the National Democratic Action Society Wa’ad Party in Bahrain, Ibrahim Sharif played a leading role in the pro-democracy protests last year and was imprisoned for the crime of calling for a change in the island monarchy’s system of government. He’s since been sentenced to five years in jail.

Most supporters of the opposition in Bahrain are members of its disenfranchised Shiite Muslim community. But Sharif is a Sunni, as are many members of his pro-reform political party. His existence, as an opposition leader and political prisoner, undermines the Bahraini government narrative that the crisis in the country is purely sectarian, that the protest movement is part of an Iranian/Hezbollah plot to establish a Shia theocracy, and that the country’s Sunni population is unalterably opposed to compromise. That a prominent Sunni, with some support in the Sunni community, is calling for constitutional monarchy in Bahrain appears to have deeply embarrassed the hardliners around the country’s king. Unfortunately, Sharif’s case has not gotten as much attention as that of other prominent Shiite political prisoners in Bahrain. Last month, a civilian appeals court upheld his sentence, along with 19 others, even though Bahrain’s Independent Commission of Inquiry found that the evidence against them consisted of their speeches or confessions extracted through torture.

Scarce Media/YouTube


Akzam Turgunov, Uzbekistan

Uzbekistan may be the one place in the world where the U.S. government has eased its pressure on a dictatorship in the last few years — because the Pentagon needs it in order to bring troops and supplies in and out of Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Uzbek dissidents have faced growing persecution. Akzam Turgunov has been detained since 2008. He founded Mazlum (“The Oppressed”), a human rights organization in Tashkent that advocates on behalf of political prisoners and protests the use of torture. He also served as director of the Tashkent section of Erk (“Freedom”), an opposition party. Prior to his most recent detention, Turgunov was working as a lay public defender in the autonomous region of Karakalpakstan, investigating corruption of local officials. Turgunov was arrested on extortion charges by the very police department he was investigating for corruption. They then held him incommunicado for 18 days, during which time an officer poured boiling water down his back, causing him to lose consciousness and suffer severe burns. Though Turgunov revealed his burn marks in open court, the judge accepted police statements that they had tortured him, and also denied him the right to examine the evidence against him or to cross-examine witnesses. He is serving a 10-year sentence in a remote work camp, where he toils 12 hours a day making bricks.

Frontline Defenders


Nguyen Huu Cao, Vietnam

Poet and anti-corruption campaigner Nguyen Huu Cau, 65, has served a total of 34 years in prison since 1975 — the first time from 1975-1980 in a re-education camp; the second time from 1982 till the present for exposing corruption by local authorities. He was formally convicted of the crime of being a “reactionary,” a serious charge, especially during the 1980s when Vietnam was a largely closed country; the prosecutor in his trial was one of the officials whom he had accused of corruption. Authorities used songs and poems he wrote as evidence of his “reactionary” activities. Originally sentenced to death, Nguyen Huu Cau is now serving a life term. He has lost most of his vision and is almost completely deaf. The only image available of Nguyen Huu Cau is shown above. This photo was taken several years ago during a family visit to the prison. 

Family of  Nguyen Huu Cau


Maria Lourdes Afiuni, Venezuela

In December 2009, Judge María Lourdes Afiuni granted conditional freedom to a critic of the government who had spent nearly three years in prison while awaiting trial on corruption charges. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez denounced her as a “bandit” and called for her to be given a 30-year prison sentence. Although Afiuni’s ruling was in response to a recommendation by United Nations human rights monitors — and was consistent with Venezuelan law — she was promptly arrested and ordered to stand trial by a provisional judge who had publicly pledged his loyalty to Chávez. (“I give my life for the Revolution,” he wrote on the website of the president’s political party. “I would never betray this process and much less my Commander.”) Afiuni spent more than a year in prison in pretrial detention, in deplorable conditions, together with convicted prisoners — including many she herself had sentenced — who subjected her to repeated death threats. In the face of growing criticism from international human rights bodies, Afiuni was moved to house arrest in February 2011, where she remains today while awaiting trial.

AFP/Stringer/Getty Images


Bernard Ntaganda, Rwanda

As the imprisoned leader of an opposition party who ran for president of Rwanda against Paul Kagame, the country’s long-serving ruler, Bernard Ntaganda ought to be better known. But over the years, Kagame has played on Western countries’ guilt over their failure to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and uses their praise for his skillful management of Rwanda’s economy to obscure political repression at home. Ntaganda, founding president of the PS-Imberakuri opposition party, is one of several government critics, including two journalists, who remain in prison solely for the legitimate expression of their views. He was arrested in 2010 during a crackdown on opposition parties, journalists, and other perceived government critics in the period leading up to presidential elections in August of that year. Charged with endangering national security, “divisionism,” and attempting to organize demonstrations without authorization, he was sentenced to four years in prison.



Vidadi Isganderov, Azerbaijan

Vidadi Isganderov, a lawyer by training, is the head of Support for Protection of Democracy, a nongovernmental group in Azerbaijan that carries out a wide range of human rights work. He defended the rights of homeowners who had lost large sums of money to bogus construction companies and also to victims of alleged police extortion. In 2011, he was charged with (and found guilty of) interfering with the November 2010 parliamentary elections in Azerbaijan, and sentenced to three years in prison. His real crime was running as a candidate in those elections, and submitting a complaint to the police and prosecutor’s office alleging vote-rigging in his district. Though he provided credible evidence, including video footage, the authorities failed to investigate them. Instead, they brought charges against him.

Obyektiv TV

Gheyret Niyaz, China

On July 23, a Chinese court sentenced Gheyret Niyaz, an ethnic Uighur journalist and the editor of a popular website called Uighurbiz, to 15 years in prison on charges of “endangering state security.” What exactly was Niyaz’s “crime”? Giving an interview to foreign media after the July 2009 ethnic violence in Xinjiang, one of China’s least accessible regions for journalists, diplomats, and independent observers. Niyaz received this punishment even though he agreed with the Chinese government’s line that the violence had been sparked by outside agitators. The government’s clear message to journalists in Xinjiang: Speak to foreign journalists at your peril. That same week, a Xinjiang court convicted three Uighur bloggers on the same charge. Dilshat Perhat, webmaster of Diyarim; Nureli, the webmaster of Salkinm; and Nijat Azat, webmaster of Shabnam, received sentences of five years, three years, and 10 years, respectively.



Muhammad Salih al-Bajady, Saudi Arabia

As democratic protest movements have swept across the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has remained a bastion of conservative resistance to reform. In 2009, Muhammad Salih al-Bajady, a 35-year-old businessman, helped to found the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, which the Saudi government has not recognized. Al-Bajady worked to uncover human rights violations in the Kingdom, including torture and arbitrary detention. He was arrested on March 21, 2011 — a day after he participated in a peaceful protest in front of the Riyadh Interior Ministry for the release of long-term detainees without trial — and spent months in solitary confinement. During his secret trial in early 2012, he was not allowed legal counsel. He was found guilty of founding an unlicensed human rights organization, and is serving a four-year sentence in al-Ha’ir prison, south of Riyadh.



Felip Karma, Indonesia

Indonesia has made tremendous progress towards democracy since the fall of the Suharto regime in the late 1990s, so Western governments no longer see it as a problem country for human rights. But it continues to imprison about 100 people for exercising their right to freedom of speech, mostly for peacefully advocating independence or autonomy for certain regions of the country.

Filep Karma is a Papuan activist imprisoned for his longtime advocacy for Papua’s independence from Indonesia. He has spoken extensively against the use of violence in protesting the Indonesian government. “We want to engage in a dignified dialogue with the Indonesian government,” he has written. “A dialogue between two peoples with dignity, and dignity means we have no use of violence.” On December 1, 2004, Karma helped organize a ceremony to mark the anniversary of Papua’s independence from Dutch colonial rule. The event was attended by hundreds of Papuan students, shouting “freedom!” and waving the Papuan “Morning Star” flag. When protesters tried to raise the flag, security forces disbanded the rally.

Karma was arrested. In 2005 he was found guilty of treason and sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for organizing the pro-independence rally. In November 2011, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention issued an opinion that the Indonesian government was violating international law by detaining Karma, who suffers from severe health problems, and called for his immediate release.

S. Eben Kirksey/Inside Story


Mohamed al-Roken and Mohamed al-Mansoori, United Arab Emirates.

Since late March, the government of the United Arab Emirates has arrested at least 25 members of the Reform and Social Guidance Association (al-Islah), a nonviolent political association advocating greater adherence to Islamic precepts. Two prominent human rights lawyers, Mohammed al-Roken and Mohammed Mansoori, are among those recently arrested for “establishing and managing an organization with the aim of committing crimes that harm state security.” Roken’s real offense appears to be that he served as a defense lawyer to al-Islah members detained without charge after they allegedly posted statements on an internet forum critical of UAE leaders. Authorities have harassed Mansoori, the deputy chairman of al-Islah and a former president of the Jurists’ Association, for many years. They dismissed him from his position as a legal adviser to the government of the Emirate of Ras Al Khaimah in January 2010 after he gave a television interview in which he criticized restrictions on freedom of speech. Yet no Western country has publicly advocated for the two lawyers’ release. The UAE has gotten a pass because of its oil wealth and important role in coalitions against Iran, Syria, and Qaddafi’s Libya. Press attention has been poor because, unlike elsewhere in the region, the UAE’s crackdown hasn’t resulted in street protests.



Sapardurdy Khajiev and Annakurban Amankychev, Turkmenistan

For years, Turkmenistan’s dictatorship received occasional international scrutiny not so much because of its cruelty, but because of its weirdness. The country’s dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, was famous for naming the months of the year after members of his family, outlawing opera and ballet, and filling the country with monuments to himself. Since his death in 2006, Turkmenistan has gotten less attention but is no less repressive. Sapardurdy Khajiev, 52, is associated with the Turkmen Helsinki Foundation, a human rights group operating in exile in Bulgaria. He documented the detention of political opponents and prison conditions in Turkmenistan. Before his arrest in 2006, he was working with a French television production company on a documentary on the cult of personality of the Turkmen president, the inadequate education and health systems, and a series of other human rights-related topics. In retribution for this work, he was tried on fabricated charges of possession of illegal weapons and sentenced to seven years in prison. Annakurban Amankychev (shown above), 41, who was working with Khajiev on the documentary, was also arrested and sentenced on the same charges.

Freedom Now


Dawit Isaak, Eritrea

Novelist, playwright and journalist, Dawit Isaak, left Eritrea for Sweden the first time in 1987 as a refugee. He gained Swedish citizenship in 1992 and, when the civil war in Ethiopia ended and Eritrea gained its independence in 1993 he returned, joining Eritrea’s first independent newspaper, Setit. He was arrested on September 23, 2001 as part of a wide government crackdown on independent media and leading politicians (the so-called G-15) who had publicly called on President Isayas Afwerki to enact democratic reforms. Dawit is now entering his twelfth year without formal charge or trial in an Eritrean prison. In October 2005 he was released for three days only to be detained again. Since then he has been held incommunicado with no access to lawyers or his wife and three children. Conditions in Eritrean prisons are terrible and torture is routine. Some of the other G-15 prisoners have died in custody since 2001. In 2011, Dawit was awarded the Golden Pen of Freedom Award by the World Association of Newspapers. The Swedish government has said it is working for Dawit’s release and a Swedish legal aid group has filed a habeas corpus case with the Eritrean Supreme Court.

The Local 

Tom Malinowski is a candidate for the Democratic nomination in New Jersey's 7th congressional district. He served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor under President Barack Obama, from 2014 to 2017. Before that, he was Washington director for Human Rights Watch, a senior director on the National Security Council staff, President Bill Clinton’s chief foreign policy speechwriter, and a speechwriter and member of the policy planning staff at the State Department under Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and Warren Christopher. Twitter: @Malinowski

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