Democracy Lab

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 


The Libya Surprise

Like it or not, the Arab Spring is Obama's foreign policy legacy. And the aftermath of Benghazi could actually turn out to be great for America. 

Two months into Libya's revolution in April 2011, I visited Benghazi and the other liberated cities in the country's east. It was Libya's hour of greatest idealism and highest hope. The rebels were promising to build a society grounded in human rights and respect for law. In town after town, walls were painted with slogans of revolutionary moderation: "We reject extremism" and "We want a country of institutions." Everyone who wasn't rushing to fight on the front lines seemed to be starting a newspaper or radio station or volunteer group, eager to connect to the world from which Muammar al-Qaddafi had isolated them and grateful to the mostly Western countries that helped them in their moment of need. 

I met Ambassador Chris Stevens then, in his makeshift diplomatic mission in a Benghazi hotel. He had recently arrived as America's envoy to the rebel authorities in the east and was pressing them, as I was, to treat prisoners well and to start building judicial institutions. We shared a laugh about what seemed America's biggest image problem in Benghazi at the time: French and Italian flags outnumbered American ones in the central square during Friday prayers. The explanation: Libyans had to make the flags by hand, and simple European tricolors were easier to reproduce than all those stars and stripes.

But Stevens knew Libya too well to assume that the rebels were all Jeffersonian democrats or that the militias fighting Qaddafi would easily give up their guns and power when the dictator was gone. He believed, however, that something special still had a chance to emerge from Libya's revolutionary chaos: that having suffered 40 years of Qaddafi's Green Book ideology, Libyans would be wary of extremists and ideologues of all stripes; that having awakened, Libya's civil society would not let anyone, neither a dictator nor armed gangs, intimidate it again; that having received the right measure of international help -- enough to win their friendship, but not so much as to deny them ownership of their revolution -- Libyans would develop a healthy relationship with the West, neither overly dependent nor reflexively hostile.

At first, Stevens's murder in Benghazi seemed to call these hopes into question. Many Americans naturally wondered whether support for the Arab Spring yielded any benefits for the United States, or just more rage. It seemed inevitable that the State Department would restrict its diplomats behind even more walls and steel -- though Stevens died not while engaging with Libyans in the cultural center he had come to Benghazi to open, but behind the walls of a diplomatic compound and the steel of a "safe" room.

Terrorists can strike anywhere. But it is how governments and societies react that determines whether terrorism succeeds or fails. And Libyans' reaction to the tragedy vindicated what Stevens believed the country is and could become. Could anyone, whether a cynic or optimist about the region, have dreamed of a better response to an attack on a diplomatic mission on Arab soil than what happened after the violence in Benghazi -- tens of thousands of people marching on the headquarters of the law-defying militias suspected of complicity in the assault (and of multiple other killings over the past several months) to run them out of town, while holding signs paying tribute to the fallen ambassador?

It was not just Libya's political elite who were angry and ashamed about what happened. The morning I learned of Stevens's death, I emailed an influential Islamist leader in eastern Libya, fearing that he would be more agitated by the anti-Mohammed video than the killings we thought (wrongly it seems) it had precipitated: "You can't imagine how sad we are," he immediately replied. "Clearly, [Stevens] was a citizen of a country that has helped us to be liberated from one of the most bloody regimes; and before all that, he was our guest who we were supposed to protect. We will do all we can to make clear that a killing is a killing no matter what the motives were."

Libya's highest religious leader, the grand mufti, issued a fatwa against the killers, linking them to militants who have been attacking Libya's Sufi shrines in recent weeks. Libya's offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood was the first political party to denounce the attacks. Even a political party led by former members of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group -- men who have plenty of reasons to be angry at the United States, especially because the CIA tortured them and rendered them to Qaddafi's prisons during George W. Bush's administration -- joined the condemnation and said the party accepted completely the U.S. government's assurance that it had nothing to do with the infamous Internet film.

Consider how differently Libyans might have responded had the international community not come to their aid last year. Militant groups with links to al Qaeda would probably have gained adherents among Libyans feeling bloodied by their government and abandoned by the West. These militants would have been just as eager to attack American targets on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, but the United States would have had far fewer Libyan friends, as well as a less cooperative partner in the Libyan government, to help meet the threat.

As it is, the country where Barack Obama's administration made its most unequivocal stand on behalf of an Arab Spring uprising is the country whose citizens came together most marvelously in opposition to the embassy and consulate attacks and in solidarity with the victims. Where America's support for democratic change and human rights has been more measured, so has the popular reaction to the recent attacks.

Egypt is a case in point. The official and popular responses to the breaching of the U.S. Embassy compound was, initially, far more ambiguous than in Libya. But so, in the minds of many Egyptians, has been U.S. support for their democratic aspirations.

Obama did, of course, tell President Hosni Mubarak that he had to go during the Tahrir Square uprising last year and, at crucial moments since, has pressed Egyptian leaders to embrace change. He has not yet, however, managed to convince a majority of Egyptians that Washington was unequivocally on their side. In large part, this is because of the 30-year legacy of U.S. support for Mubarak that Obama inherited. It is also because the fall of Egypt's dictator did not mean the immediate end of its military dictatorship, and because the administration has continued to balance its support for change in Egypt against its relationship with the country's abusive armed forces.

In my view, Obama's finest hour in Egypt came this June, when he said the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces should respect the results of Egypt's presidential election and let the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsy, take office. But this pressure did not come when the eyes of the world were upon Tahrir Square. It was exercised largely behind the scenes. And many of Egypt's revolutionaries were themselves of two minds about letting the Brotherhood take power. Obama's principled stand probably helped him three months later, when he persuaded Morsy and the Brotherhood to condemn the embassy attacks more vigorously after their initial silence. But it was not enough -- not yet -- to overcome decades of popular Egyptian mistrust of the United States.

In Yemen, the United States ultimately helped ease the long-serving dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, out of office and is providing significant aid for the economy and the transition process. There is still resentment, however, over U.S. support for Saleh in the first months of the uprising, over U.S.-backed deals that gave Saleh immunity and allowed his relatives to keep top security posts, and over drone strikes. Supporting democracy and development may be a priority for Washington in Yemen, but Yemenis know that it is not the top priority. This may explain why, when mobs breached the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, many Yemeni citizens reacted with a degree of anger and shame, but not the universal revulsion -- or spontaneous popular rising against the perpetrators -- that we saw in Libya. And it may be why Yemen's parliament condemned the violence but voted against allowing U.S. Marines to reinforce the embassy compound.

In Bahrain, too, Washington has straddled the fence between demanding political reform and staying on good terms with an authoritarian monarchy that hosts a U.S. naval base. Many members of Bahrain's mostly Shiite opposition are frustrated with the United States for not opposing the Bahraini government's repression more strongly; from time to time, young protesters chant anti-American slogans. But opposition leaders and activists still desperately want American help. On the Friday after the embassy riots elsewhere in the region, they urged their followers not to demonstrate against the United States. In other words, it is faith -- fragile and perhaps temporary -- in the possibility of a more principled American policy that protects U.S. interests in Bahrain from the anger of its Shiite street.

Yet America's partnership with Bahrain's government has not stopped hard-line members of the country's ruling family from fomenting anti-American hatred among their Sunni supporters. The only demonstrators waving the al Qaeda flag outside the U.S. Embassy in Bahrain last month were backers of the monarchy. If there is a threat to the thousands of American personnel stationed in Bahrain, it is more likely to come from supporters of America's authoritarian "friends" on the island than from the opposition, as U.S. military officers on the island privately acknowledge.

What lessons should the Obama administration draw from all this?

First, recent events have reinforced, not weakened, the rationale for supporting political change in the Arab world. No sober-minded proponent of such a policy believed it would prevent every act of terrorism or resolve every source of tension between the United States and the region. The point was to deny extremists the argument that the United States supports oppressive regimes and to gradually win America more allies among the people of Arab countries against al Qaeda and extremism. It was also to create space for the political reformers and civil society activists whom the Mubaraks and Qaddafis (not to mention the House of Saud) suppressed, allowing them to serve as a counterweight to those on the violent fringe. So far, the more consistently this policy has been applied, the more these effects have been seen.

Second, the United States naturally cannot do everywhere in the Middle East what it did in Libya. The solidarity Libyans feel with the countries that supported them, as well as their consequent rejection of terrorism, is not by itself a sufficient argument for military intervention in Syria or elsewhere. But people liberating themselves from dictatorship in the Arab world will be more likely to help those, and listen to those, who help them (and vice versa). Entanglement in the troubles arising from the Arab Spring is not a dangerous thing for the United States if it is principled and aligns Washington with people struggling for their dignity and human rights.

Certainly, this is no time to lurch to the opposite extreme -- to start seeing the region in terms of threats, not opportunities, to pull out the diplomats and send in the drones. It is sad that the only questions Congress is asking the administration now about Libya concern the attack on U.S. diplomats and whether someone can be blamed for not anticipating it or beefing up security enough. Congress should be demanding to know how the administration plans to continue the fallen diplomats' mission. How will it help the legitimate Libyan authorities rein in the militias responsible for the lawlessness in the country, as the vast majority of Libyans want?

Third, though the United States will continue to juggle multiple interests in the Middle East, a revolutionary moment is not a time for nuance. If you want to win the respect and trust of people in the region, as Obama set out to do in his famous speech in Cairo, and one day those people risk prison and death to challenge their authoritarian regimes, then on that day you must be clearly, unequivocally on their side, or they are not going to hear you.

A final thought: Obama didn't make or break the Arab Spring. But the Arab Spring is Obama's first-term foreign-policy legacy. This is not what realists in the administration expected. But the democratic upheaval in the Middle East is the only major global development in the last four years that is shifting the course of history and that the United States has been able to affect for better or for worse.

Nothing else compares. The Middle East peace process is stalled (all the more reason for the administration to be seen addressing other sources of tension between the United States and the Arab world). Afghanistan and Iraq have preoccupied the administration, but those are old commitments being wound down, not positive efforts to build something new. The "Asia pivot" may be a wise adjustment in priorities, but it has not yet produced significant achievements. The win the administration most often cites, the democratic opening in Myanmar, is hopeful, but has nothing to do with the U.S. decision to focus more on the Pacific. It happened because Myanmar was never part of America's geopolitical calculus in Asia -- it was the only country in the world toward which successive presidents, including Obama, pursued a policy devoted overwhelmingly to the pursuit of human rights.

The embassy attacks are not the beginning of the end of the Arab Spring or of America's engagement with it. They may mark the end of the beginning. We all know now, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said when it all started, that the authoritarian foundations of the region are "sinking into the sand" and that from Morocco to Iran, people will seize every chance to bury them deeper. But the hardest challenges lie ahead: ending the atrocities in Syria and stabilizing the country after Bashar al-Assad is gone, brokering political reforms in a dangerously divided Bahrain, consolidating democracy in Egypt, building a state from the ground up in Libya.

Experts will tell Obama that the United States has limited influence over all these developments. I hope he will tell them that he pays his experts to help him use that limited influence as creatively and effectively as possible. If he is reelected, I hope he will own his legacy and double down on the effort to make it a successful one.

STR/AFP/Getty Images