Christmas behind bars

On this Christmas 2021, the International Society for Human Rights remembers all political prisoners around the world who are unfairly kept behind bars for expressing their opinions or beliefs. From left to right: Belarusian Motorbike mechanic Alyaksandr Kordyukov, Iranian spokesperson of the Centre for Human Rights Defenders, Narges Mohammadi, Cuban-German citizen Luis Frómeta Compte, founder of the Cuban UNPACU democracy movement, José Daniel Ferrer-García, Syrian-Assyrian abbot of the Mor Jakub monastery, Aho Bilecen, German-Iranian Nahid Taghavi, Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, Kurdish singer Nûdem Durak, critic of the Cuban regime Felix Navarro, Tibetan monk Konmey, Belarusian journalist Katsiaryna Andreeva and Belarusian member of the opposition Maria Kolesnikova. 

Silent night – sad night

Christmas behind bars: ISHR remembers political prisoners and prisoners of faith worldwide

Frankfurt am Main, 22 December 2021 – Silent night, sad night: Many families around the world are spending this Christmas without their loved ones who are innocently in prison. They have been arrested for standing up for human rights and democracy and for drawing attention to abuses in the country. The International Society for Human Rights (ISHR) recalls the fate of political prisoners and prisoners of faith who are imprisoned under inhumane conditions in countries such as Cuba, Iran, China, Turkey or Belarus during the Christmas holidays and demands their immediate release.

“For many families of political prisoners, it is particularly hard to be separated from their loved ones at Christmas and not knowing how they are or when they will be able to embrace each other again. It is a scandal that, for example, dual nationals like Luis Frómeta Compte or Nahid Taghavi are still imprisoned in Cuba and Iran and are used as a bargaining chip by the regimes,” explains Martin Lessenthin, spokesperson of the ISHR board.

ISHR and supporting politicians point out some of the fates of all political prisoners and prisoners of faith:

Cuba systematically locks up regime critics

Luis Frómeta Compte is one of about a thousand people arrested during the nationwide protests in Cuba on 11 July 2021. The German-Cuban, who has lived in Dresden for decades, was visiting relatives at the time and filmed the demonstrations for private purposes with his smartphone. Since then he has been in prison – meanwhile in the “Combinado del Este”. The public prosecutor’s office is now demanding 24 years in prison for “causing public nuisance” and “inciting to riot”.

The well-known Cuban civil rights activist and founder of the UNPACU democracy movement, José Daniel Ferrer-García, has also been in prison once again since 11 July 2021 in Santiago de Cuba. This time he is accused of “public disorder” and “aggression”. Ferrer was considered missing for almost three months after his arrest.

Felix Navarro, a critic of the regime, was arrested on 12 July 2021 because he had gone to the police station the day before to ask about his party colleagues who had been arrested during the 11 July protests. He is currently being held in the “Combinado del Sur” prison in Matanzas, facing 15 years in prison. Navarro contracted Covid 19 while in prison.

Iran tramples on women’s rights

German-Iranian Nahid Taghavi has been innocently behind bars in Iran for over a year. The architect and women’s rights activist was arrested at her home in Tehran after visiting her brothers on 16 October 2020 under the pretext of “endangering security” and taken to Evin Prison. She was interrogated for a total of more than 1,000 hours and held incommunicado. On 4 August 2021, Nahid Taghavi was sentenced to ten years and eight months in prison for “membership of an illegal group” and “propaganda against the regime”. Despite paying the equivalent of about 70,000 euros in bail, the 67-year-old is not granted any prison leave for urgently needed medical treatment.

The former vice-president and spokesperson of the Centre for Human Rights Defenders, Narges Mohammadi, has been campaigning for women’s rights in Iran for years and has therefore been arrested several times. Most recently, she was sentenced to 16 years in prison. After more than eight years behind bars, the women’s rights activist, who was awarded the Human Rights Prize of the City of Weimar, was released in October 2020. However, she did not get her passport back, so she has not been able to see her children and husband who live in France. In the meantime, another case has been opened against the 49-year-old journalist.

Suppression of ethnic and religious minorities

The Syrian-Assyrian abbot of the Mor Jakub monastery, Aho Bilecen, was sentenced to 25 months in prison on 7 April 2021 for allegedly collaborating with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The monk from the Tur Abdin region had given food and a place to stay in his monastery to transients in September 2018.

Because the Kurdish singer Nûdem Durak passed on her Kurdish language and culture, she has been imprisoned since April 2015. In 2016, she was sentenced to 19 years in prison. Recently, she was punished for singing in Kurdish.

Peaceful protesters in Belarus sentenced to long prison terms

Motorbike mechanic Alyaksandr Kordyukov took part in a peaceful protest against the presidential election results on 11 August 2020 and was arrested three days later. His friend was shot dead during the protests. Kordyukov was sentenced to ten years in a penal colony for “Attempted murder” and “Violent resistance to an internal security official”.

Maria Kolesnikova was Viktor Babariko’s chief of staff during the 2020 presidential elections in Belarus. After his arrest, she supported Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, was a presidential member of the Coordinating Council of the Belarusian Opposition and founded the party “Bmecte” on 31 August 2020. As of September 2020, she was in pre-trial detention and on 6 September 2021 was sentenced to eleven years imprisonment for “conspiracy to seize power”, “founding and leading an extremist organisation” and “using mass media contrary to national security”. In October 2020, Maria Kolesnikova received the Sakharov Prize of the European Parliament together with all members of the opposition.

On 15 November 2020, Belarusian journalist Katsiaryna Andreeva was arrested after reporting live on the violent crackdown by security forces on peaceful demonstrators. For this she was sentenced to two years in prison on 18 February 2021.

Persecution of Tibetans and Uyghurs by the People’s Republic of China

The Tibetan monk Konmey was arrested in Sichuan province on 20 July 2021 and has since been held at an unknown location. He allegedly engaged in political discussions on the Chinese social media platform WeChat. In fact, however, according to information from ISHR, the 45-year-old was merely reciting prayers.

The Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2014 for defending the cultural rights of his people. Ilham Tohti received the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize in 2019.

The IGFM’s political sponsorship programme

Together with ISHR, Members of the parliament campaign for the release of political prisoners and prisoners of faith. For example, MPs write to the ambassador and the respective government asking for the release of the prisoner(s). They also draw attention to their commitment to human rights and the situation of prisoners in their own media work.