Standing firm against political detention

After authorities in Nicaragua kicked down her door and arrested her husband, Juan Sebastián Chamorro, Victoria Cárdenas had no idea what would happen next.

Chamorro was swept up, in June, in the Nicaraguan government’s crackdown on political opposition. His crime? Running against President Daniel Ortega in the November election.

Man at microphone raising fist (© Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images)
Nicaraguan presidential candidate Juan Sebastián Chamorro speaks in June 2020 in Managua, Nicaragua. (© Inti Ocon/AFP/Getty Images)

“For 84 days we did not even know if he was alive,” Cárdenas told the Voices of Political Prisoners panel discussion December 8. “Daniel Ortega has killed our democracy.”

Chamorro remains imprisoned without a trial. Cárdenas says she fears returning to Nicaragua.

The discussion was part of the Summit for Democracy, convened virtually to advance strategies for protecting human rights and to counter corruption and authoritarianism around the world.

“When countries hold political prisoners, they create climates of fear and self-censorship, and they stifle political participation,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the panel. “That’s why it’s important that all countries stand firmly against the detention of political prisoners — no matter where they’re held — and work together to free them.”

More than 1 million political prisoners are held in 65 countries worldwide, Blinken said. They include students, activists, journalists and opposition leaders.

To help free political prisoners, the United States:

  • Sanctions government officials and other individuals and entities responsible for, or that participated in, undermining democracy, consistent with applicable law.
  • Builds international pressure in partnership with the U.N. Human Rights Council, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and other multilateral institutions.
  •  Supports victims’ families and advocates by spotlighting the plight of political prisoners.
Rayhan Asat posing for photo next to tree (© Jeenah Moon/Reuters)
Rayhan Asat’s brother, Ekpar Asat, is a Uyghur political prisoner in the People’s Republic of China. (© Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

Panelists said their relatives’ imprisonment has devastated their families.

“I’ve watched my parents age quickly, bearing the scars of loss, pain and injustice,” said Rayhan Asat, a Uyghur, whose brother Ekpar is imprisoned in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). He was detained in April 2016 after studying in the United States.

Tatsiana Khomich said Belarus holds more than 900 political prisoners, including her sister, Maria Kolesnikova, a democracy advocate, who was arrested September 7, 2020.

The U.S. and partner nations have imposed sanctions targeting members of the Lukashenka regime and those who support it, following the fraudulent presidential election on August 9, 2020. The U.S. also has sanctioned PRC officials in connection with the mass detention of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.

Peter Biar Ajak walking in front of airport terminal, holding two boys by the hand (© Luis M. Alvarez/AP Images)
Peter Biar Ajak, with his sons, after arriving at Washington Dulles International Airport in Virginia on July 23, 2020 (© Luis M. Alvarez/AP Images)

Democracy advocate Peter Biar Ajak said U.S. efforts helped free him from detention in South Sudan, where he was held from 2018 to 2020.

State Department Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights Uzra Zeya told the panel that the U.S. government would fight for their relatives’ release. She urged other countries to take similar steps.

“The United States government looks forward to working with other interested governments” to secure the release of political prisoners, Zeya said.