It is wonderful to be here among friends and colleagues. A heartfelt thank you to our Lithuanian partners, including Vice Foreign Minister Adomenas and Ambassador Plepyte, for their generous hospitality.
And I can’t think of a better co-host for this vitally important discussion. Lithuania is a safe haven for so many who have fled repression at home, and your government has led the way in challenging those who would use imprisonment for political ends. I was honored to visit Vilnius in the run-up to the first Summit for Democracy in 2021, and I commend your government’s commitment to advancing human rights and supporting nations on the front lines of authoritarian overreach. Thank you.
Lithuania has set a high bar for us all in advancing freedom, and we still have a long path ahead. In its most recent report, Freedom House highlighted a global
democratic recession – for the seventeenth year running. Laws on so-called “subversion of state power” and “separatism” in the People’s Republic of China, “discrediting” the Russian military, and “disrespect” in Cuba are used by governments to unjustly arrest those simply exercising peaceful freedom of expression. Citizens in these countries find themselves behind bars as political prisoners — some held only for their race, ethnicity, or faith. The PRC’s mass detention and forced labor campaign against Uyghurs in Xinjiang is a prime example.
But our gathering here today is not to admire the problem. We are here as partners to mobilize bigger coalitions and exert more effective pressure. So let me share with you concrete examples of how the United States has been expanding our advocacy for the release of political prisoners around the world, especially throughout the Summit for Democracy Year of Action.
Building on the political prisoners roundtable that Secretary Blinken and Lithuanian FM Landsbergis co-hosted at the December 2021 summit – an event I had the honor to moderate – the Department of State launched a new initiative last January called, “Without Just Cause.” It advocates for the release of 19
emblematic political prisoners and raises awareness of the human cost of political imprisonment. You can see many of their faces on posters around this room.
They include Cuban human rights defender Jose Daniel Ferrer, who has been held in solitary confinement for 18 months after trying to join the historic July 11, 2021 demonstrations. Uyghur political prisoner Ekpar Asat, who has spent nearly seven years in prison after taking part in a respected U.S. cultural exchange program. (I would like to recognize his sister, Rayhan Asat, who is with us here today.) Russian pro-democracy activist Vladimir Kara-Murza faces the prospect of decades behind bars if convicted of three spurious charges of human rights advocacy and criticism of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.
The Without Just Cause cases are emblematic of the injustices faced by political prisoners across the world. Here I want to mention Kem Sokha, a respected political leader in Cambodia, held unjustly on fabricated conspiracy charges. His daughter, Mona Kem, is with us today. Welcome Mona.
All the while, U.S. diplomats in Washington and in the field continue to push governments to release all political prisoners and dismiss politically motivated charges, because, as Secretary Blinken put it, “we know that sustained pressure
can work.” And we can prove it. In February, Nicaragua released 222 political prisoners, in the wake of concerted American diplomacy and pressure from us and our partners in the region. In the aftermath, we denounce the Ortega government’s move to strip nationality from these and other human rights champions, which reflects an authoritarian government’s retaliation and desperation. We urge the immediate release of Bishop Rolando Alvarez, still held as a political prisoner by the regime, and an end to its persecution of religious leaders.
Despite these sobering realities, I’m struck by one former Nicaraguan prisoner’s comment that the international efforts to seek his release felt like, “a ray of light in the middle of darkness.” Friends, we need to continue to shine that ray of light brightly together, advocating across multilateral fora for those who have been unjustly imprisoned.
Which is exactly what we are doing. For example, the United States proudly promoted accountability for the Lukashenka regime’s abuses in Belarus in Geneva at the current Human Rights Council session. There we supported a powerful session organized by our co-host, Lithuania, along with a side event on political prisoners in Russia, with strong support from Luxembourg, Estonia, Germany, and Poland. On January 31, the Summit for Democracy’s “Resisting Authoritarian Pressure” Cohort shared best practices for seeking the release of political prisoners. Well over 30 government officials took part in that event.
And we continue to draw encouragement from those who are leaders in this fight, like Svyatlana Tsikhanouskaya – a key figure of the pro-democracy movement in Belarus, whom I have been honored to engage since taking on this role. Svyatlana inspires us and many in her country with her unrelenting courage and advocacy for a democratic Belarus. And even as she presses for the release of all political prisoners in Belarus, her own husband, Syarhey Tsikhanouski, is serving a nearly twenty-year prison sentence for daring to run for president. Svyatlana is with us here today. Thank you, Svyatlana, for your bold, selfless work. Svyatlana, we too, will continue advocating, every day, for the release of all people who are unjustly held – regardless of where they are held.
Friends and partners, let us continue to look for opportunities to join with like-minded, freedom-loving nations that respect human rights and are willing to speak out against political imprisonment. So long as there continue to be political prisoners, we must “shine a ray of light” and persist in our efforts to free them.