Youth Against Fear: Cases of Young Political Prisoners

by Najmin Kamilsoy

Authoritarian governments create a climate of fear and a hostile environment for dissent, in order to discourage citizens from participating in political processes and social movements. They often use excessive security measures, brutal law enforcement interventions, and compromised judicial systems most commonly underscored by: politically motivated criminal proceedings, arrests, arbitrary detentions, enforced disappearance, and torture. The harsh realities facing ordinary citizens, let alone activists, have adverse effects on youth civic participation. Despite the crack down on civil society, and restrictions within academic environments, some youth find ways to organize themselves to challenge authoritarian power. However, this makes them a target of government suppression and leaves them vulnerable to imprisonment.

Non-democratic regimes are becoming increasingly aggressive against the exercise of freedom of expression, assembly, and association in many parts of the world. Further, we see similar trends around the world with authoritarians sharing practices and mechanisms to sensor and restrict dissent with each other. In the experience of many countries throughout history, young people have led democracy and social movements, even under the most difficult circumstances. However, just as non-democratic actors work together to restrict fundamental freedoms, it is just as important, if not more important, for young leaders of democratic movements from around the world to bind together to share experiences, best practices, and lessons learned in protecting the tenets of democracy and its institutions.

This article features the experiences of outstanding youth activists and movements from three countries, Angola, Azerbaijan, and from Hong Kong, an autonomous territory in China. It discusses how the ruling authorities target democracy youth movements and activists, and the ways the latter can use to push back.

Remain Organized

“There is a long list of political prisoners in Hong Kong. Almost all student leaders of our protest movement have been prosecuted over politically motivated charges, including unlawful assembly and disregarding court rule. By [reinforcing] repressions, the government creates a message to [the] young generation that they do not accept any dissent,” says Eason Chung, one of the leaders of ‘Umbrella Revolution’. The Umbrella Revolution, which is the largest protest movement Hong Kong has ever seen, brought hundreds of thousands of people to stand for Hong Kong’s democratization and independence from China.

In August 2017, three years after the Umbrella Revolution’s mass protests began, influential activists and leaders of the movement were sentenced to prison terms. Among them, was Joshua Wong, who encouraged fellow citizens to continue the fight with a letter he sent from jail – “being locked up is an inevitable part of our long, exhausting path to democracy.” Wong and his friends were later released on bail after local and international pressure, however, criminal charges still remain against them.

Besides generating fear in the society, the government has also created legislative obstacles in order to block youth participation in decision-making processes. The authorities misinterpret and violate the constitution to target and eliminate student activists who intend to engage in political processes by running for and winning seats in the legislative council.

Chung said that, despite ongoing repressions, they continued to run online and offline campaigns, raise funds, and provide legal assistance and managed to get extensive media coverage in order to ensure sustainable civic participation in protests and to draw international attention. Staying organized is one of the main ways to dismantle fear, he added.

Stay Determined

Luaty Beirao is a famous Angolan rapper, youth activist, and former political prisoner. He was among a group of youth activists – known as the Angola 17 – who were arrested in June 2015 on trumped up charges of ‘criminal conspiracy’ and ‘rebellion against the president of the country’, just for gathering to discuss a book on peaceful resistance. Beirao was sentenced to 5 and half years of imprisonment.  However, even while in prison, he was committed to upholding democratic values and was not ready to give up the fight. Before that, he was detained twice for helping to organize peaceful protests against policies of the Angolan president, who had been in power since 1979.

“When we were in jail, those who put us there were more terrified of us than we were of them. Although they separated us in prisons and consequently placed us in punishment cells, we continued to pursue our individual acts of protest,” Beirao remarked.  He added that being aware that someone out there is standing in solidarity with you encourages you a lot, emphasizing importance of support from family, local community, and the international community. Beirao went on a hunger strike for more than a month demanding a fair trial.

Authorities of oil-rich Angola have invested almost half of the country’s wealth in national security. Beirao believes that this investment is intend create paranoia within the society, especially among activist groups. “If you dare to publicly speak out, they will come after you,” said Beirao, recalling fellow activists who have been subject to threats, physical attacks, imprisonment, and enforced disappearance. Despite all of these restrictions, people in Angola do not stop expressing dissent, using social platforms. Beirao and his colleagues continue to advocate against corruption, human rights violations, and for the rights of political prisoners; encouraging fellow citizens to speak up against injustice.

Encourage Each Other

In 2016, Bayram Mammadov and Giyas Ibrahimov were students and successful contestants of intellectual competitions. It was during this time that they decided to join a pro-democracy youth organization, NIDA Civic Movement, which brought together hundreds of youth activists to demand respect for civil and political rights, rule of law and free elections in Azerbaijan.

Founded in 2011 without any political affiliation, NIDA aimed to achieve democratic changes in the country, mainly through educational activities and peaceful protests. Just two years after its emergence, the youth group became one of the main targets of the ruling elites in Baku for organizing mass protests calling for reforms in the way military conscripts are treated. Following series of protest actions, authorities responded harshly by imprisoning leading members of the movement, including Ilkin Rustamzada, who is currently spending his 5th year in jail.

Repression against NIDA continued in following years as almost all of the active members have been subject to threats, pressure and prosecution. It did not stop likeminded young citizens – who believed in the democratic future of the country – from becoming members of the movement, just like Bayram and Giyas. But what these two brave student activists did was provocative: they spray-painted a political slogan on the central statue of Haydar Aliyev – former KGB general, late president, and the father of the current president of Azerbaijan – on his birthday, which is celebrated as “Flower Day” across the country.  They committed this act in order to challenge the dynasty of the ruling family. Hours later, both of them were detained and brutally tortured. They were charged with bogus drug offences and sentenced to 10 years in prison, where they are still subject to ill-treatment and even to death threats.

What happened to these two activists was terrifying, but instead of frightening others, their act appeared to break taboos and inspire fellow activists. Months later two more youth activists attempted to paint on the statue of the former president in another city of Azerbaijan. “Being imprisoned on political grounds – just for the simple fact that you want your country to be a better place to live – is a tragedy for a person and family. In the short run, the arrests might harm the work of democratic movement, but in long run, it only damages the image and legitimacy of the government,” said Turgut Gambar, one of the founders and leading members of NIDA. He also claimed that “repressions do not prevent new people from being involved, expressing dissent and mobilizing others.”

Need for International Response

Many believe that one of the main reasons for increasing restrictions against democracy activists is the lack of adequate international response to authoritarian governments. Democracies need to revisit their relationship with regimes that do not tolerate dissent and alternative voices.

Groundbreaking steps need to be taken in the international level in order to ensure that standing for fundamental freedoms and democracy is not a dangerous activity anywhere in the world. One way to ensure this is to express solidarity with those who lost their freedom in this fight – political prisoners. Ensuring the safety of activists and movement leaders through international support would boost the larger impact of democracy movements.

Authoritarians are teaming up against democracy, its institutions, and advocates. Therefore, its high-time to build and join international solidarity efforts against those who are hostile to democracy. Communication – especially, between youth-lead movements around the world – as well as the exchange of best practices and lessons learned is as important as it’s ever been.

Non-democratic governments care about their international reputation. Through lobbying efforts, getting promotional media coverage, even by corrupting major European institutions, they intend to avoid international criticism over poor human rights records. As those regimes also intend to eliminate local independent media, making it very important that international media coverage continues to put a spotlight on grave human rights violations and cases of political prisoners across the world. Being forgotten in prison cells is sometimes more distressing than facing fear.

Najmin Kamilsoy is a former Hurford Youth Fellow at the World Movement for Democracy.