Gubad Ibadoghlu, a senior visiting fellow at the London School of Economics, was due to spend this year’s holidays with his wife, daughter and two sons. Mostly, they planned to just spend time together, cook, drink wine and maybe watch fireworks over the River Thames again to see in 2024. But Ibadoghlu won’t be around. He’s in jail in Azerbaijan.
The economist, who has also taught at Princeton, Duke, North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Rutgers, is one of at least 250 political prisoners there; depending on your definition there are tens of thousands, or even over a million worldwide. There are a lot of altruistic reasons to give these people a thought over the holidays, as well one that isn’t: Someday, it could be you.
Mostly when we think of political prisoners, it’s people like the opposition leader and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny, who recently, and ominously, went missing within the Russian prison system. The once bull-like Mikheil Saakashvili, a former Georgian president, has grown emaciated as he faces his third Christmas in a Tbilisi jail. In Iran, prosecutors just slapped the already jailed human rights activist Narges Mohammadi with yet another bogus trial, no doubt as punishment for being awarded the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize.
Arbitrary arrest is the calling card of governments that don’t permit the judicial independence that protects us from their whims, and you don’t have to be political, or even a local national, to become a political prisoner. The risk of being taken hostage as a pawn in some intergovernmental dispute, or just for doing your job in a still global market, is rising.
The Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich has now been in a Russian jail for nine months. According to President Vladimir Putin, talks are underway with the US, but it hasn’t yet offered enough to get him back. Mark Swidan, a Texas businessman, remains on death row in China. Johan Floderus, a 33-year-old Swedish diplomat working for the European Commission, has been in Iran’s Evin prison since the middle of 2022. A full list would fill multiple columns.
In the not-too-distant future, you may not need to leave a developed economy to be at risk. The value of separated power and an independent judiciary, no matter how flawed or skewed to favor the rich, is being forgotten as right-wing populists from Donald Trump in the US to Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and the AfD party in Germany enter the mainstream.
If that sounds alarmist, consider a September poll across 30 countries by the Savanta agency, commissioned by the Open Society Foundations. It found that 29% of Americans, 34% of French and 50% of Turks agreed with the proposition that “having a leader who does not bother with parliaments or elections is a good way of running a country.” Across the board, support for rule by strongmen (few are women) was highest among 18- to 35-year-olds. And independent courts, as purged judges in Hungary, Poland and Turkey can attest, are among the first targets of would-be authoritarians who get voted into office.
Turkey has had to build new jails to accommodate the boom in political prisoners since President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put his stamp on the nation’s judiciary. Those detained on often fabricated charges include opposition party leaders, businesspeople, journalists, lawyers, academics, and tens of thousands of others detained over even the flimsiest of connections to Fethullah Gulen. The faith leader’s eponymous religious movement was once allied to Erdogan, but in 2016 was implicated in a failed coup d’etat against him.
The so-called hostage diplomacy that’s more of a threat to foreign citizens is on a much smaller scale, but also draws on a much smaller pool of potential victims. “If you look at the three priority prisoners on the US State Department list, the so-called American hostages, all three are business people,’’ says John Kamm, a US businessman who set up the Dui Hua Foundation to campaign for the release of political prisoners in China.
Mark Swidan was in China to source building materials for his Houston business when he was convicted of drug trafficking, even though no drugs were found in his room, on his person or in his urine. Kai Li, a naturalized US citizen, had a business importing and distributing solar-energy technology when he was arrested during a 2016 trip to visit family in Shanghai. The United Nations has judged his arrest arbitrary, but he was sentenced to 10 years in jail for espionage after a closed, one-hour trial. David Lin, a US-based economist and born-again Christian, has been in jail since 2006,