Far too many human rights defenders are currently serving long term prison sentences, upwards of 10 years or longer, for their peaceful and legitimate human rights work. As domestic legal remedies are exhausted, unfair judgments become final, and new stories capture the media and political spotlight, these long term imprisonment cases run the risk of falling off the agenda. At Front Line Defenders we are committed to ensuring that these cases of term term imprisonment of HRDs are not forgotten.
The following 10 cases are illustrative of the many HRD cases where repressive governments around the world have consistently used the law to smear and to silence HRDs.
Dawit Isaak, Eritrea
Swedish-Eritrean journalist and human rights defender Dawit Isaak has been held incommunicado, without charge or trial, in Eritrea since 2001. On 23 September 2001, security forces arbitrarily detained Isaak along with at least 10 other independent journalists. He was unexpectedly released in 2005 for medical treatment but was arrested again just two days later and nothing has been heard from him since. The human rights defender’s present condition and whereabouts are unconfirmed. He has had no contact with relatives, no access to Swedish consular officials, and no recourse to a lawyer since 2001.
Engineer, entrepreneur and blogger Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức advocated for social and economic reforms in Vietnam before being arrested on 24 May 2009. His activism took the form of a personal blog which he penned under the name Tran Dong Chan (Change We Need) and in 2008 he also started co-writing a manifesto entitled "The Path of Viet Nam" which offered a comprehensive set of recommendations for governance reform centred on human rights. On 20 January 2010, he was tried and convicted of charges of “attempting to overthrow the people’s administration” and sentenced to 16 years’ imprisonment with five years’ house arrest on release.
Trần Huỳnh Duy Thức, Vietnam
Pablo López Alavéz, Mexico
Environmental rights defender and Zapoteco indigenous leader Pablo López Alavez has been arbitrarily imprisoned for more than 11 years in the state of Oaxaca, Mexico. For two decades, the environmental and indigenous peoples rights defender worked to ensure that the San Isidro Aloápam community’s rights to a safe environment and access to water were guarded and guaranteed. On 15 August 2010, he was violently and arbitrarily detained by a group of more than 15 unidentified men. Following 7 years in detention without trial, he was found guilty on trumped up murder charges and sentenced him to 30 years in prison.
Former Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Protection Coordinator for Front Line Defenders, former President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and co-founder of Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja has a long history of working to promote human rights. In February 2011 protests and demonstrations broke out across Bahrain calling for greater political freedoms. Opposition leaders and leading pro-democracy human rights defenders were subsequently arrested. On 9 April 2011, up to twenty armed and masked policemen broke into the Al-Khawaja family home in the middle of the night, dragged the defender down the stairs and extensively beat him. He was also subjected to physical and psychological torture in detention. On 22 June 2011, he was sentenced to life in prison.
Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Bahrain
Mohamed Al-Roken, UAE
Leading human rights lawyer Mohamed Al-Roken has been at the forefront of providing legal assistance to victims of human rights abuses in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), including to fellow HRDs. In 2011 he was one of 133 UAE citizens to sign an online petition calling for more democratic processes in the UAE; a petition which resulted in the arrest and trial of the main initiators of the petition who became known as the “UAE 5”. Al-Roken acted as the lawyer in this case. In July 2012, a major round-up of HRDs and critics of the government took place, including Al-Roken. He and the others detained became known as the “UAE 94” and were accused of plotting to overthrow the government. On 2 July 2013, the Federal Supreme Court convicted and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
Renowned Uyghur intellectual and human rights defender, Ilham Tohti was an economics professor at the Central University for Nationalities in Beijing [now Minzu University] prior to his arrest in 2014. Rejecting separatism and violence, he worked for over two decades to build understanding between Chinese Hans and Uyghurs. On 15 January 2014, over 20 police officers raided the minority rights defender’s home and he was detained. Despite the defender’s extensive and demonstrable work to heal societal rifts between Uyghur and Han citizens, this detention was later upgraded to formal arrest on charges of “separatism”. On 23 September 2014, he was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Ilham Tohti, China
Emir-Usein Kuku, Crimea
Chair of the Crimean Contact Group on Human Rights in Yalta and a member of the Crimean Human Rights Movement, HRD Emir-Usein Kuku has a long history of advocating for the rights of Muslim ethnic groups in Crimea. Since the annexation of Crimea, HRDs, journalists, activists and lawyers have become targets of repression and intimidation by local authorities. The targeted persecution of Emir-Usein Kuku is believed to be a direct result of his human rights works and his refusal to collaborate with the Federal Security Services (FSB) of the Russian Federation. On 11 February 2016, the defender was detained together with five other Crimean Tatars and charged with “involvement in a terrorist organisation”. On 12 November 2019, the defender was sentenced to 12 years in a strict-regime correctional colony.
Prominent human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh has dedicated her legal career to representing opposition activists, women’s rights activists and young prisoners who were sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were minors. As a direct result of her human rights work, the human rights lawyer was previously imprisoned in Iran from 2010 until 2013. Between 2013 and 2018, the defender continued her work as a HRD. On 13 June 2018 she was arrested and charged with eight offences, including "propaganda against the state", "assembly and collusion" and “espionage”. She was sentenced in two different trials to 38 years and 6 months in prison and 148 lashes.
Nasrin Sotoudeh, Iran
Server Mustafayev, Crimea
Coordinator of the grass-roots movement Crimean Solidarity, Server Mustafayev is a Crimean Tatar HRD. The Crimean Solidarity movement, created following the annexation of the Crimean peninsula by the Russia Federation in 2014, seeks to support victims of political and religious persecution by monitoring and documenting human rights violations, providing legal aid, observing trials and providing assistance to families. On 21 May 2018, masked policemen entered the defender’s home in the city of Bakhchisarai, central Crimea. Following a 3-hour search, a number of documents and electronic equipment were seized and the HRD was arrested on charges of “membership of a terrorist organisation”. On 16 September 2020, he was sentenced to fourteen years in a strict-regime correctional colony and a subsequent year of restrictions on his rights and freedoms.
Woman human rights defender María Esperanza Sánchez García has participated in civic activism since 2018 when a wave of protests took place in Nicaragua. As a direct result of her human rights activities the defender has been persecuted, threatened and fired from several jobs, and from November 2019 to 26 January 2020, when she was arbitrarily detained, she had been living in between different safe houses in a bid to protect her family from persecution. Following a trial in May 2020 that was marred with irregularities, the defender was found guilty of narco-trafficking and on 2 July 2020 she was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment and fine.
María Esperanza Sánchez García, Nicaragua
Since the initial launch of the Long Term Imprisonment Case campaign in 2012, we have celebrated the release of a number of defenders once sentenced to long prison terms, including the release of WHRD Atena Daemi (Iran) who was unconditionally released in January 2022.
We also welcomed the release of a number of W/HRDs into exile, including Tran Thi Nga (Vietnam) released into exile in January 2020 and Germain Rukuki (Burundi) released into exile in June 2021.
Sadly, unjustly imprisoned human rights defender Azimjan Azkarov (Kyrgyzstan) died in custody on 25 July 2020 while serving a life sentence on trumped up charges. We continue to demand justice in his case.
On 24 January 2022, anti-death penalty activist and women and children’s rights defender, Atena Daemi was granted an "early release warrant", granting her unconditional release. First arrested in Iran on 21 October 2014, she was sentenced to 14 years in prison as a direct result of her peaceful human rights activities. She was released on bail in February 2016, and her sentence reduced to 7 years on appeal. Rearrested in November 2016, she was transferred back to prison where she was subjected to systematic punitive and psychological mistreatment. In June 2020, just one month before her expected release, she was charged and convicted on additional charges of “disturbing order” at Evin prison and sentenced to two additional years and 74 lashes. On 24 January 2022 she was granted an "early release warrant", granting her unconditional release.
Atena Daemi, Iran