Best Practices for Governments to Advocate for and Secure the Release of Political Prisoners Worldwide
“The worst nightmare for a political prisoner is to be forgotten.” — Vladimir Kara-Murza, imprisoned Russian opposition leader
Amid a years-long decline in global freedom, demands for fundamental rights and accountable governance are growing more urgent. Entrenched autocratic leaders recognize popular resistance as a threat to their grip on power, and their regimes have intensified efforts to silence human rights and prodemocracy activists. According to estimates from the US Department of State, there are more than one million political prisoners worldwide.
Democratic governments can do more to publicly and privately lobby for their release. In a January 2023 closed-door roundtable convened by the Permanent Secretariat for the Community of Democracies and Freedom House, governments exchanged information on approaches they have taken on behalf of unjustly detained individuals worldwide. The following is a summary of key findings from the discussion.
- There is no “one-size-fits-all” approach. Advocacy strategies to secure the release of political prisoners should vary by individual. Their well-being is paramount; the wishes of their family members and legal representation must be carefully considered as well. Country and regional dynamics should also be taken into account. Governments must weigh the pros and cons of advocacy to ascertain if state action could backfire and harm the individual’s prospects for release. With these caveats, utilizing a “carrot-and-stick” approach with perpetrator governments was frequently cited as effective.
- Partner with trusted civil society actors. Limited embassy footprints and the sheer number of imprisoned individuals necessitates government partnerships with trusted civil society organizations. Governments should partner with groups engaged in identifying and documenting cases of unjustly detained individuals, and those that have the capacity to help advocate for their release. They may be based inside perpetrator countries, or externally but with close connections on the inside.
- Intra- and intergovernmental coordination is essential. Widespread, coordinated buy-in across government agencies and with embassies is crucial, as is close cooperation with like-minded governments. Joint advocacy campaigns are more effective than individual ones. Allied governments and other actors should synchronize messaging and make a common case when speaking up for political prisoners.
- Stay engaged. Democratic governments should meet regularly with family members of political prisoners, advocacy groups, and media outlets and journalists, in public and in private, in their efforts to secure an individual’s release.
- Think long-term. In addition to providing support while an individual is in prison, governments should consider ways to assist political prisoners upon release. This could include psychosocial support, medical treatment, and issuing a visa if the individual needs to or wishes to leave the country temporarily or permanently.
- Amplify the voices of unjustly detained individuals and survivors of unjust imprisonment. There are many methods governments can use to call attention to individual political prisoner cases, such as highlighting their rights activism, the circumstances of their detention, or their treatment in prison. Executive and legislative branch offices and individual representatives should utilize public communications channels, including press releases and statements and posts on social media, to increase awareness and pressure on perpetrator regimes to release political prisoners. Murals, letter-writing campaigns, and music are also effective ways to generate public awareness about individual cases and demonstrate solidarity with those behind bars.
- Make it standard practice for embassy personnel to engage on political prisoners issues. Embassy personnel working in perpetrator countries should, pending approval from the imprisoned individual’s legal advisers, attend their trials and visit prisons to conduct well-being visits and inspect conditions.
- Elevate political prisoners in international forums. Democratic governments should elevate the staggering rate of unjust imprisonment at international forums, including by inviting formerly detained individuals and relatives of those unjustly detained, and placing political prisoner issues on official agendas.
- Support official programs to “adopt a political prisoner.” Consider programs like the Defending Freedoms Project within the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission in the US Congress, whereby legislators may choose to support the case of an individual political prisoner and are encouraged to advocate for their release in public and private settings. Legislators can be encouraged to draft op-eds, give floor speeches that reference their assigned case, and write to the prisoner or their family, among other tactics. Such programs are not exclusive to government participation—celebrities and influencers are also very effective in amplifying campaigns to free political prisoners.
- Speak up about political prisoner concerns. Democratic governments should consistently raise political prisoner concerns, including the cases of specific individuals, in bilateral meetings with perpetrator governments.
- Request information and specific actions related to individual prisoners. Democratic governments should request individual updates on prisoners’ medical condition and treatment, and request specific action as needed. Regular wellness checks should be made in cases of clear mistreatment and abuse. Democratic governments should also insist that prisoners have access to legal counsel and family visits.
- Move quickly to provide safe shelter or evacuation support for those at risk. In cases where an arrest of a vulnerable human rights defender is imminent, leverage embassy resources to shelter or safely evacuate willing individuals so they may avoid being unjustly detained. While research suggests that most at-risk activists do not want to flee their countries, in extreme cases temporary relocation may be necessary for their safety and well-being.