Political prisoners, families place hope in US campaign

Tuesday, Mar 28, 2023

GENEVA: A US campaign highlighting the plight of 19 political prisoners around the world has sparked hope among some on the list and their families with calls for concrete action.

“We really hope this will be a game changer,” said Rayhan Asat, the sister of Ekpar Asat, a Uyghur tech entrepreneur who has been a political prisoner in China for seven years. “I am glad that the US government has put Ekpar on this list of people who we must secure their freedom,” she told AFP in a recent phone interview.

“I hope to see that result.” Washington launched a campaign in January to shine a spotlight on specific political prisoners in countries ranging from Russia and China to Nicaragua and Iran.

“But it is also meant to be emblematic of the larger problem of political prisoners around the world,” said Erin Barclay, the acting assistant secretary at the US State Department´s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor.

“We´re trying to get the conversation focused on how this issue goes hand in hand with growing authoritarianism, (and) with governments finding new ways to crack down on peaceful protests and peaceful expressions of views,” she told AFP earlier this month.

The Without Just Cause political prisoners campaign was conceived during the first Summit for Democracy hosted by President Joe Biden in late 2021, and is due to feature during the second such summit in Washington this week.

On the list are three Nicaraguans, two of whom have been released since the campaign was launched. They were among 222 political prisoners suddenly expelled by President Daniel Ortega´s government to the United States on February 9 and stripped of their citizenship.

“When we landed, we heard about that. No longer Nicaraguan,” Juan Sebastian Chamorro, a former presidential candidate, told AFP during a visit to the UN in Geneva. He described being “kidnapped” from his home on June 8, 2021 and held incommunicado for several months before being allowed infrequent visits from some family members.

But for most of the 20 months -- 611 days -- he spent in a crowded cell, where inmates were barred from speaking, he had no contact with his wife and daughter, who fled to the US shortly after his arrest.

“The conditions were pretty hard,” Chamorro said, describing how happy he felt when learning about the US campaign while in jail. “The worst thing that can happen to a prisoner is to be forgotten,” he said. Amnesty International, which has a long history of advocating on behalf of political prisoners, welcomed the US push.

“It´s a really great campaign,” said Andrew Fandino, head of advocacy for individuals at risk at Amnesty´s US chapter, told AFP. He said it was vital “to have that spotlight there for some of these individuals who have been in prison for a long time,” and hailed having official US government recognition that “these are legitimate political activists and human rights defenders.”

Rayhan Asat meanwhile acknowledged the extra visibility could come with additional risks for her brother, one of more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslims allegedly detained in prison camps in China´s far-western Xinjiang region. “But I felt the positives outweighed the risks,” she said, adding that she had learned over the past seven years that to make a difference “you need to make noise.”

Ekpar Asat was detained upon his return from Washington in 2016, after he took part in a State Department programme as the only Uyghur in a Chinese delegation, his sister said. “When he returned, he was immediately subjected to enforced disappearance,” she said, suggesting Washington “owes a special obligation” to highlight his case.

Beyond the US social media focus, she said she hoped the campaign would dedicate significant resources towards a “much bigger mobilisation”, and getting other countries involved. “Those are the factors that can really make a difference.” Barclay said that as part of the campaign, US diplomats abroad were also systematically raising the cases in bilateral conversations and pushing for other countries to do the same.