Friday, December 30, 2005 at 11:15 AM
Of course, some of us remember well how, during the Cold War, imprisoned political dissidents like Natan Sharansky (in Russia) Aung San Suu Kyi (in Myanmar) and Nelson Mandela (in South Africa) were causes celebres for political activists around the world. (I certainly participated in my share of “Free Mandela – End Apartheid” rallies in college.) But even western governments seemed unrestrained by diplomatic protocol as they spewed moral indignation at the totalitarian regimes that jailed these martyrs for democracy.
Therefore, it is more than a little ironic that – despite the wave of democracy washing over the world – there are more political dissidents in prison today than there were back then. (And, in its oxymoronic attempt to keep a leash on political freedoms as it unleashes free enterprise, China probably has more political dissidents behind bars than all other countries combined….) But it is profoundly disheartening that neither political activists nor western governments seem terribly troubled by the plight of these victims of political oppression.
Nevertheless, for overindulged college students who are conscientious enough to appreciate that there’s more to extra-curricular activities than cruisingMy Space, here’s a little collegial advice: Research the high-profile dissidents featured below (or any others you deem worthy), then organize campus freedom rallies for their cause. I guarantee that you will not only become a better student (and human being) for doing so but, in due course, you will also rekindle widespread moral outrage against the repression of political prisoners – just as rallies for clemency for Stanley “Tookie” Williams rekindled outrage against the death penalty. (And Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger found out just how influential such protests can be when his native Austria rebuked him – by revoking his national honours – after he signed Tookie’s execution order).
As if to dramatize hiszero tolerance of political dissent, Russian President Vladimir Putin – the man President Bush lauded for having a good democratic soul – decided to make an example of the richest man in Russia (who, not insignificantly, is also a Jew). As a result, one day in October 2003, Mikhail Khodorkovsky went from running one of Russia’s most profitable companies and funding democratic reform campaigns, to being arrested and thrown in prison on charges of fraud and tax evasion. Khodorkovsky is now serving a 9-year sentence, no doubt in a dingy cell in the infamous Russian Gulag Archipelago).
Western leaders still consider Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak a pioneer for democracy in the Arab world – despite the fact that during his 25 years in power he never allowed a single candidate to oppose his “re-election” as president. But it was only this year – when democratic reforms in Iraq and Palestine made him look like the dictatorial dinosaur he is – that Mubarak deigned to “ask his country’s parliament to change the constitution and permit multiparty popular elections.”
Yet, even as he made this request last February, Mubarak had already begun his campaign of repression against his most formidable opponent Ayman Nour. Nonetheless, Nour’s Tomorrow Party made a relatively respectable showing in the September national elections by winning 12% of the vote against 89% for Mubarak’s egregiously misnamed National Democratic Party (down significantly from its customary 100%).
But, evidently, Mubarak found this prima facie fraudulent margin of victory too unnerving. Because just this week, hisrubber stamp judiciary found Nour guilty of those stale charges and sentenced him to 5 years in prison (which, in a truly Machiavellian bit of political stagecraft, means that Nour will be out just in time to serve as Mubarak’s foil for his next round of multiparty elections.)
Political prisoner Kizza Besigye
Notwithstanding almost universal support amongst democratic leaders, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni is as much a pioneer of democracy in Africa as Mubarak is in the Middle East. And, in a recent article on the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government Summit in Malta, I noted with derision that:
“…delegates spent almost as much time defending their decision to allow Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni to host their next summit as they did spinning the platitudes about trade and good governance contained in their joint Communiqué into something approximating substantive achievement.”
Of course, they felt obliged to defend that decision because only weeks before this summit, Museveni’s government had arrested opposition leader Dr Kizza Besigye on a potpourri of charges ranging from terrorism to rape. However, none of these Commonwealth leaders could say with a straight face that Besigye’s arrest was not timed to prevent him from running against Museveni in national elections scheduled for next February.
Yet, they not only refused to censure Museveni but actually reaffirmed their intent to honour Museveni by allowing him to host their 2007 summit in Uganda – since everyone obviously believes his reelection is a fait accompli.
So, where’s the outrage?
College students of today, it’s time to find your Nelson Mandela, put away your ipods and protest…goddamn it!