Some political prisoners are cause célèbres; others are little-known figures. But each of the detainees in this week’s List reflects their nations’ stalled progress on human rights. The fate of these individuals will reveal much about whether their countries are committed to the rule of law—or simply paying lip service to reform.
www.lafogata.org Ramiro Aragn Prez
Who: Biologist and union activist, Oaxaca, Mexico
Detained: On what he calls a fabricated weapons charge, after he was abducted, beaten, and held without due process on August 10, according to reports.
Status: Aragn Prez is a sympathizer of the teachers union that has been on strike for three months in the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. The rights group Amnesty International believes Aragn Prez is being tortured in prison.
Why his case matters: The conservative Mexico City daily El Universal calls him [o]ne of the many casualties of Mexicos new dirty war in the southern state of Oaxaca, where civil unrest has plagued the region for months. His case is starting to attract more attention to the tense situation in Oaxaca, which has been largely overshadowed by the election protests in Mexico City.
www.rfa.org Chen Guangcheng
Who: Civil rights activist, China
Detained: Charged in June with damaging property and disrupting traffic.
Status: Chen, a blind, self-taught lawyer who drew attention to cases of forced abortions and sterilizations in eastern China, was sentenced on August 24 to four years and four months in prison, a stiff penalty for such light charges. His lawyers werent allowed to enter the courtroom during the two-hour proceeding, as they had been arrested on charges of theft the day before the trial began. Chen has appealed the verdict. Since his conviction, there have been repeated calls for his release from the Bush administration, human rights groups, and pro-life advocates.
Why his case matters: In May, Time magazine named Chen one of its 100 People Who Shape Our World for his advocacy work. The Washington Post has called him one of Chinas bravest human rights lawyers. His ordeal punches a hole in Chinas claims that it is working to reform its troubled legal system. Some legal experts and rights advocates see a silver lining to this case, though: Chen is a bright example of the Chinese peoples increased willingness to demand basic human rights.
wikimedia.org Ali Akbar Mousavi Khoini
Who: Former member of Irans parliament and head of the students rights group, Alumni Organization of Iran
Detained: This June, on charges of disturbing the public order at a rally in Tehran for womens rights.
Status: Mousavi Khoini remains jailed at the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran. He is being defended by Nobel Peace Prize-winning attorney Shirin Ebadi, who has since complained publicly about a lack of access to her high-profile client. In an odd twist of fate, Mousavi Khoini was among a group of parliamentarians who toured Evin Prison in 2001, amid allegations that it was a site of political detentions and torture. The U.S.-based advocacy group Human Rights First has mounted a campaign appealing for his release.
Why his case matters: Mousavi Khoinis arrest stoked an already intense battle between reformists like himself and the ruling clerical regime. That he was arrested at a womens rights rally sends a stark warning to activists who had hoped for progress on that front as well. On a larger scale, Iran is readying itself for diplomatic battle with the United States and the European Union over its nuclear program and its apparent involvement in the recent war between Israel and Hezbollah; the last thing Iran wants now is a prominent political prisoner with a Nobel Prize-winning attorney calling attention to its abysmal human rights record.
hrw.org Fathi al-Jahmi
Who: Democracy activist, Libya
Detained: March 26, 2004, a day after announcing on U.S.-backed Al-Hurra television that he considered Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi a war criminal, rather than the legitimate leader of Libya. His wife and son were arrested and later released.
Status: Al-Jahmi, a former engineer, has been in and out of Libyan jails for years. In 2004, he was released after U.S. Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware met with Qaddafi and called for his release. President Bush hailed the move as a significant step in Libyas rapprochement with the West. Several weeks later, al-Jahmi was again arrested for slandering the countrys leader. Human rights groups have warned recently that al-Jahmi now sits on death row for his comments, as well as for possibly meeting with a U.S. diplomat.
Why his case matters: Al-Jahmi is the most prominent political prisoner in Libya. His case is a black eye for a country trying desperately to improve its public image. Even the reformist son of the current leader, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, has accused al-Jahmi of conspiring with and transferring information to foreign countries and making agreements with foreign elements. Human Rights Watch and other advocacy groups dont see it that way. Libya has renounced terrorism and weapons of mass destruction in its efforts to rejoin the international community, the organizations Middle East director, Sarah Lynn Whitson, said recently. Now it should take another step and let peaceful critics speak their minds.
wikipedia.org Daw Aung San Suu Kyi
Who: Winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize and the democratically elected leader of Burma
Detained: Although Aung San Suu Kyi has spent most of the past 17 years in custody, her most recent period of house arrest began on May 30, 2003.
Status: Easily the worlds most prominent political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi was imprisoned by the military junta following her partys victory in the 1990 general election. This May, the ruling generals announced that she will remain in prison for at least another year.
Why her case matters: Aung San Suu Kyi is the public face of Burmas struggle for democracy. Her nonviolent resistance amid continued repression has only strengthened support for her cause abroad. Not that the generals who rule Myanmar, as they renamed the country, have responded in kind. In May, Foreign Minister Nyan Win refused to bow to international pressure calling for her release: This is not an international issue, he told reporters, but a domestic issue.