Launch of #FreeToBeHome Political Prisoner Campaign

By: Ambassador Samantha Power, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations

This holiday season, as families in the United States gather, we are reminded of all the missed holidays, bittersweet birthdays, and family occasions where a mother, brother, friend, or neighbor was missing because a government chose to muzzle their voices and lock them up.

So throughout this holiday season, the United States government will be profiling the cases of prisoners unjustly held around the world and the families they leave behind. The stories of these individuals will highlight the broader struggle faced by so many families of political prisoners, who have to commemorate countless family occasions with loved ones behind bars.

It is, of course, fitting to launch such a campaign on Human Rights Day, as these prisoners were detained for exercising their universal rights. These prisoners represent thousands of other prisoners unjustly detained around the world.

On this Human Rights Day, we call on all governments to release them. Political prisoners should be free to believe. They should be free to be loved. They should be free to be home.

They are:

  • Ilgar Mammadov, Azerbaijan
  • Oleg Sentsov, Russian Occupied Ukraine
  • Khalil Matouk, Syria
  • Leopoldo Lopez, Venezuela
  • Narges Mohammadi, Iran
  • Ilham Tohti, China
  • Bekele Gerba, Ethiopia
  • Julio Alfredo Ferrer Tamayo, Cuba
  • Omar Mohamed Ali, Egypt
  • Fanta Jawara, Gambia

The Campaign — Political Prisoners and Their Families

Beginning on December 12, we will share one of these individuals’ stories per day. Check back for updates and help us shine a light on the struggle they and their families face‎, as we call for the immediate release of all political prisoners.

Ilgar Mammadov, Azerbaijan

[State Department photo]

Vafa and her daughter have faced heartbreaking and difficult times. For the past three years and 10 months, they have traveled the same solemn roads to prisons in Baku, Ganja, and Sheki in Azerbaijan to visit Ilgar Mammadov, husband and father. Their memories of these past four years will only be of the times they have seen him behind bars, twice a month for one hour at a time.

Ilgar is an Azerbaijani opposition leader who was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of organizing mass disorder and resisting arrest after he criticized the government’s handling of demonstrations and unrest, a challenge to the leadership of Azerbaijan. Prior to his arrest in February 2013, Ilgar was the chairman of the Republican Alternative (REAL) opposition party and director of the Baku School for Political Studies — part of a network of schools affiliated with the Council of Europe an active blogger. A well-known critic of the Azerbaijani government, he had indicated that he intended to run in the 2013 presidential elections.

The European Court of Human Rights found that the authorities in Azerbaijan had violated basic human rights provisions in arresting and sentencing Ilgar. His appeal to the Supreme Court of Azerbaijan was rejected in November.

We call on the Government of Azerbaijan to release Ilgar Mammadov immediately and reunite him with his family.

Oleg Sentsov, Occupied Crimea

[State Department photo]

Ukrainian film-maker Oleg Sentsov was arrested on May 10, 2014, shortly after Russia’s attempted annexation of the peninsula of Crimea. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Russian court, charged with plotting terrorist acts as a part of pro-Ukrainian demonstrations. The Russian Federal Security Service accused Sentsov and three others after holding them for weeks without charges. During his trial, Ukrainian authorities and human rights groups were forbidden from contacting or helping him.

Sentsov is being held in a Siberian prison 3,500 miles from his family. Oleg’s mother looks back fondly on his childhood, remembering when he would help with household chores and plan New Year’s celebrations. Oleg’s cousin says she misses their long talks about movies. His 14-year-old daughter remembers their hiking trips and how he taught her to make sushi. Oleg’s 12-year-old son was diagnosed with autism and does not understand what has happened or why his father cannot live with them. Oleg’s mother is afraid she won’t live to see him released. “If only I can live to see him free,” she said.

We call on the Government of Russia to release Oleg Sentsov immediately and reunite him with his family.

Khalil Matouk, Syria

[State Department Photo]

Lawyer and human rights advocate Khalil Matouk disappeared on October 2, 2012 while driving to work. It is believed Syrian authorities took him into custody, though government officials deny that he is being held. His family and colleagues have been unable to confirm his whereabouts, legal charges against him, or his health condition. They did not even have the chance to say goodbye.

Matouk has devoted his life to defending hundreds of political prisoners, journalists, and human rights activists. As executive director of the Syrian Center for Legal Studies and Research, he has been outspoken about the Syrian government’s abuse of power. He is known for his publications on justice and respect for fundamental freedoms. He has been targeted by the Syrian government in the past for serving as an outspoken voice against injustice.

Since Matouk’s disappearance, his family was forced to flee Syria as refugees, leaving all of their precious belongings behind in their homeland. His relatives say they miss their long conversations with him, his jokes, and the songs he sings. His daughter remembers how much he loved parties and the traditional Dabkeh dance common at Syrian celebrations. “He was proud of me that I can do it better than men,” she said. It is especially painful for her knowing that her younger brother has not had the same opportunity to get to know their father because he has been away from home for more than four years now. “We need him to breathe again,” she said.

We call on the Government of Syria to release Khalil Matouk immediately and reunite him with his family.

Leopoldo Lopez, Venezuela

[State Department photo]

Leopoldo is a man full of love and warmth, recounts his wife Lilian Tintori. When Leopoldo proposed to Lilian, he asked her to commit herself to him and to Venezuela, a country which he loves. His love for country meant standing up to injustice and calls for peaceful protests against government-sponsored violence against dissenters. Because of his perceived defiance, government authorities sought his arrest. More than 1,000 days ago, Leopoldo turned himself in to Venezuelan authorities. He was subjected to a politically motivated prosecution and sentenced to nearly 14 years in prison on fabricated charges.

Leopoldo’s family has missed his energy, his warmth, and his support. And while they will celebrate his presence in spirit, they are dreading another Christmas without him. Until they secure his release, Leopoldo’s wife, mother and sister continue to give voice to his words by writing their messages and words on their skin and small pieces of paper which they obtain during their visits with him in jail.

We call on the Government of Venezuela to release Leopoldo Lopez immediately and reunite him with his family.

Narges Mohammadi, Iran

[State Department photo]

Narges Mohammadi, a prominent human rights defender, had been arrested before for her work against the death penalty and oppression in Iran. But this time, she wasn’t released as she had been before. In May 2015, she was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 16 years in jail. She is critically ill and requires ongoing specialized medical care, which she cannot receive in prison.

Her young twin children have been awaiting their mother’s return for Nowruz, the most important holiday for Iranians. Nowruz means a “new day” when all family members get together to celebrate the New Year. Imagining a Nowruz without Narges around the table is unbearable for the family, especially for her children.

We call on the Government of Iran to release Narges Mohammadi immediately and reunite her with her family.

Ilham Tohti, China

Ilham Tohti is a Chinese economics professor who maintained a website that provided Chinese news services in the Uighur language and encouraged both the Chinese government and Uighur community to constructively engage to improve relations. In January 2014 he was charged with separatismand, in September 2014, after a two-day trial, he was given a life sentence, one of the harshest sentences handed down in recent years to a Chinese citizen for political expression. Seven of Tohti’s students were also sentenced in the government’s case against him. His daughter, Jewher, who currently lives in the United States, has been calling for his release. Tohti, who has been imprisoned for exercising his fundamental human rights, represents thousands of other prisoners unjustly detained around the world.

We call on the Government of China to release Ilham Tohti immediately and reunite him with his family.

Omar Mohamed Ali, Egypt

[State Department photo]

For more than a year and a half, Omar Mohamed Ali has been separated from his fiancée. The two were kidnapped by Egyptian state security forces and forcibly disappeared for 15 days. His fiancée was held for eight months under house arrest, but Omar continues to be held in prison.

Since his arrest, Omar has been tortured by state security forces and coerced into confessing to involvement in a terrorist cell. The Egyptian government has denied knowing of his whereabouts, along with other prisoners held on similar charges. On May 29, 2016, an Egyptian military court sentenced Omar to life in prison.

Omar’s fiancée has happy memories of their days together — horseback riding, watching him play squash, trying new foods together, and playing video games. Omar’s 24th birthday recently passed — a special day that they would have normally shared together laughing and making memories. She has been able to visit Omar occasionally, but state security officers only allow them to see one another for five minutes during each visit.

“The past year and a half has been the most horrible time in our lives. I hope he will be released soon and we can get married and live together safely.”

We call on the Government of Egypt to release Omar Mohamed Ali immediately and reunite him with his family.

Julio Alfredo Ferrer Tamayo, Cuba

[State Department photo]

Julio Alfredo Ferrer Tamayo is ‎affiliated with the Cubalex Legal Information Center, an NGO that works to provide citizens with free legal assistance. On September 23, authorities arrested Julio during a raid on the organization’s Havana office, where they also confiscated office equipment and files, and even strip searched some of the staff. He had a suspended three year sentence from allegedly falsifying public documents, a charge which civil society groups say is politically motivated. Julio Alfredo’s family didn’t know his whereabouts for several days after the arrest, but he has since been able to communicate with his daughter.

We call on the Government of Cuba to release Julio Alfredo Ferrer Tamayo immediately, so he can be with his family and provide legal assistance to the Cuban people.

Belele Gerba, Ethiopia

[State Department photo]

Authorities detained Oromo Federalist Congress Deputy Chairman Bekele Gerba on December 23, 2015 and later charged him along with more than 20 others under Ethiopia’s Anti-Terrorism Proclamation. There were reports that authorities mistreated Bekele and others, including denying them adequate medical care and access to visitors including legal counsel. Bekele Gerba is one of thousands detained following the start of protests in November 2015. 
We call on the Government of Ethiopia to release all political prisoners and ensure all Ethiopians enjoy the protections of their constitutional rights.

[State Department photo]

On International Human Rights Day, we launched #FreeToBeHome to raise awareness of political prisoners and their families.

As families around the world gather for the holidays, we must remember those who cannot.

While this campaign has provided a platform for families to share their stories, this cannot be the end. These stories — and the stories of every single person wrongfully imprisoned and unjustly taken from their families — go on until each and every one of them is back home where they belong.

These were just a few of the political dissidents, human rights defenders, individuals standing up to abuse and corruption who have been detained on trumped up charges and sentenced to years in jail. Make no mistake, none of them are serving their sentences alone. Their families are equally affected. And if we remain quiet, we are part of the problem.

Let’s not let their stories be forgotten. We must continue to tell them. We must continue to speak the names of these prisoners and demand that they, and others unjustly jailed are released and free to be home.

This story also appears on DipNote, the U.S. Department of State’s Official Blog.