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Themes Prisoners of Conscience

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Narrated by James Glassman

VO: Under many governments, peaceful opposition to the political system -- even appearing to question government policies -- can result in arrest and imprisonment.

Individuals can be jailed or tortured for their politics, how they worship, or what they say.

They are prisoners of conscience.

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Today, many thousands of dissidents around the world are detained by their governments for expressing their views.

Ariel Sigler Amaya’s crime was criticizing the government. He was arrested with 75 other Cuban dissidents. When he was released seven years later, he appeared to be near death.


They considered me a threat to the students and accused me of trying to change my students´ mentality with words that were not in alignment with the communist regime. They said they were charges against the security of the State. I don’t know if thinking differently and demanding your rights are an offense against State security. We never picked up a gun, we never assaulted a barrack, and we never killed anyone. This means that our goal was our freedom and to claim the rights of every Cuban to be free, to express their ideas, their opinions, and to be heard and be given solutions.

VO: Doan Viet Hoat was first imprisoned for simply trying to improve the curriculum at a university.


So they put me in the prison for 12 years without any trial. And I was released in 1988, just beginning to see what's happening in Eastern Europe countries and Soviet Union. And so I thought this is a chance for pushing for democracy and freedom for Vietnam. So some of my friends and myself, we decided to edit what we call Freedom Forum-- underground newsletter to advocate democracy and human rights for Vietnam. And we did it for about one year and a half. And they discovered us. And then they put me in jail again in 1990. 

VO: Saad Eddin Ibrahim, one of Egypt’s leading voices of democracy and human rights, was sentenced to a seven year prison term after writing an article criticizing the Mubarak government.


The day it hit the market, it disappeared from the Egyptian market at midday, and at midnight, I heard banging on my door. I was alone in my house in Cairo. And when I opened, there were 13 people-- armed security force stormed into the house, arrested me, and detained me. And that was the beginning.

VO: One of Iran’s first cyber-activists Nima Rashedan was arrested as part of a crackdown on journalists.


They started a mass arrest campaign. In one day they shut down, with the direct order of -- public order of supreme leader, Mr. Khamenei, they shut down something like 50 newspapers, a single day. They rampaged over the offices of newspapers. They broke the computers, they took the belongings of journalists. It was a kind of war on media. Indeed, I studied actions like this by different governments. In this dimension, I have never seen in our contemporary history that the government is just rampaging and seizing the media, and arresting, a mass arrest of everybody who has been active in media. 

VO: Armando Valladares was arrested when he refused to display a communist sign on his desk. In prison, he witnessed the brutal treatment of Cuba’s political prisoners.


While I was in prison, 10 of my fellow inmates died in hunger strikes. I have the sad privilege of having two cellmates who died in hunger strikes. Pedro Luis Boitel, a student leader, from whom Castro himself ordered water should be taken away until he died. The other one was Roberto López Chávez, who was almost a child when he got to prison, was my cellmate as I said, and he went on a hunger strike. He was taken to the punishment cells, they took water away from him, and when he was agonizing, asking for water, the guards came in and said: "Do you want water?" And they urinated on his face. He died the next day.

VO: East Timor activist, Constancio Pinto remained true to his cause despite being detained and tortured.


I was arrested about nine o'clock in the morning and then tortured till one in the morning of the next day. And-- well I thought that that was it. That was my life. And during that time under duress, always maintained myself, protected my organization, protected my people, and take responsibility for what I did. So because for me the resistance does not end with me. It will continue. It ends when Timor Leste became truly an independent country.

VO: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf gained strength from her time in prison. She eventually became the president of Liberia and won the Nobel Peace Prize.


Courage. Standing up for the things you believe in, the principle to be prepared to take it and defend the position you're in, you know? The courage of your conviction. One has to be able to be a bit stoic, but I think, you know, every time there's a challenge and one is able to overcome the challenge, I think you get stronger. And sometimes the difficulties you face are themselves character-building and courage enhancing. So when I went to prison I came out stronger.


My message to all those who suffer under tyranny is this: We will never excuse your oppressors. We will always stand for your freedom.

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