Press release

A Global Initiative to Liberate Political Prisoners

Freedom House expands its efforts to aid political prisoners and combat the use of imprisonment as a tool of authoritarianism.

Today, Freedom House launched a new initiative to free political prisoners around the world. It will focus on human rights defenders (HRDs) and prodemocracy activists who are detained in retaliation of their heroic work.

"Authoritarian governments have grown increasingly sophisticated in their attempts to silence dissent and even mere criticism,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Increasingly, autocratic regimes are dispensing with the façade of democracy—from sham elections to kangaroo courts—and are pursuing more repressive policies, including openly imprisoning human rights defenders, prodemocracy activists, and journalists.”

Scores of HRDs are imprisoned for making their voices heard and exercising their fundamental rights. In 2020, a group of global and regional nongovernmental organizations warned that thousands of HRDs and prisoners of conscience were imprisoned worldwide. In October 2021, the office of the UN’s special rapporteur on HRDs reported that it was pursuing the cases of 148 people serving long-term prison sentences, but it warned that many more cases went undocumented.

One-party states like Russia and China and absolute monarchies like Saudi Arabia are known for imprisoning, torturing, and even assassinating HRDs outright. In ostensible democracies led by authoritarian leaders, like Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, those who advocate for democratic governance and individual rights often face imprisonment on spurious charges including kidnapping, terrorism, and treason.

Freedom House’s political prisoners’ initiative will take on individual cases from all over the world. Criteria for selection include: the HRD’s demonstrated track record in advocating for human rights, the case’s emblematic potential, and whether Freedom House can meaningfully affect efforts to secure their release. Freedom House will directly support these courageous individuals while raising awareness of the plight of detained HRDs globally and mobilizing governments and international organizations to collaborate and combat the use of imprisonment as a repressive tool. 

“Activists need immediate protection from the threat of imprisonment, but they also need long-term support when they are imprisoned, such as legal representation, humanitarian aid, familial support, and reentry services upon release,” said Margaux Ewen, director of the political prisoners’ initiative at Freedom House. “At the same time that we advocate for individual activists’ freedom, we also seek to generate a global wave of opposition to authoritarian governments’ rampant use of this tactic, protecting all activists from future imprisonment.”

The program will identify HRDs and democracy activists detained for their work around the world. Freedom House will also select a number of individual cases to receive targeted advocacy support and emergency assistance to prisoners’ families until their release. This initiative will focus on those imprisoned for defending freedom, including journalists, dissidents, members of political opposition groups, and others who promote human rights and democracy in authoritarian regimes.

“This initiative will make a vital contribution to the cause of freeing human rights defenders and combating the global threat of political imprisonment,” said Alfred H. Moses, a leading partner at the law firm of Covington & Burling and the catalyst donor for the expansion of this work. “Freedom House has been a leader in the field of international democracy support for 80 years, and I am honored to support their increased focus on this terrible problem.”

“Freedom House is tremendously grateful to Alfred Moses for his $5 million donation to the project,” Abramowitz added. “We are also grateful to the Gideon Foundation and the Peter Mackler Award for their support and partnership.”

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Freedom House is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to create a world where all are free. We inform the world about threats to freedom, mobilize global action, and support democracy’s defenders.

The Gideon Foundation seeks to support and empower individual and organizational efforts and programs that advance universal human rights, democratic values, education, and the rule of law and protect victims of oppression.

Since 2009, the Peter Mackler Award has honored reporters and editors who demonstrate a commitment to fairness, accuracy, speaking truth to power, and asserting the right to publish or air stories in countries where independent media is under threat.

Alfred H. Moses has for four decades been a leading partner at the law firm of Covington & Burling and is a business leader, diplomat, philanthropist, and honorary chair of UN Watch. He previously served as chair of UN Watch (2001-2020), national president of the American Jewish Committee special counsel to President Carter (1980−81), U.S. ambassador to Romania (1994−97), and special presidential envoy for the Cyprus conflict (1999−2001).