Defending Political Prisoners

The importance of remembering and freeing political prisoners is exemplified in the case of Nelson Mandela, who endured 27 years in a South African prison, and emerged to not only preside over the dismantling of apartheid, but to become President of the first democratic, egalitarian, non-racial South Africa. Accordingly, we must come to the defense of major political prisoners, wherever they are, standing in solidarity with them and not relenting until they are freed.




The importance of remembering and freeing political prisoners is exemplified in the case of Nelson Mandela, who endured 27 years in a South African prison, and emerged to not only preside over the dismantling of apartheid, but to become President of the first democratic, egalitarian, non-racial South Africa. It is a testimony – as is Raoul Wallenberg – to how one person with the compassion to care and the courage to act can transform history. Accordingly, we must come to the defense of major political prisoners, wherever they are, standing in solidarity with them and not relenting until they are freed.



Since its founding, the Centre seeks to mobilize international advocacy in concert with other international human rights bodies, governments, parliamentarians and NGOs that can have a dramatic impact on the case and cause of political prisoners, and alone almost make the need for such a Centre worthwhile. At present, the Centre is engaged in advocacy on behalf of:


Raif Badawi (Saudi Arabia)

Raif Badawi has been languishing in a Saudi prison since his arrest in 2012, and his subsequent sentencing in 2014 to 10 years imprisonment and 1000 lashes, itself constitutive of torture and a standing violation of International Human Rights Law. Badawi's "crime"? Establishing an online forum and exercising his right to freedom of expression. Despite Saudi Arabia expressing an interest in reforming and modernizing, Raif Badawi – an advocate of liberalism and tolerance, and the champion of these changes – remains imprisoned and separated from his wife and three children, now citizens of Canada.

Legal Brief (Summary) | Clemency AppealUNWGAD Opinion | Time Magazine Op-Ed | HuffPost Op-Ed | The Hill Op-Ed

Waleed Abulkhair (Saudi Arabia)

Waleed Abulkhair – a courageous human rights advocate and lawyer – was unjustly sentenced to 15 years in prison on July 7, 2014 for nothing other than speaking out against Saudi Arabia’s harsh sentencing of peaceful human rights defenders. He was arrested immediately after refusing demands to sign a pledge to stop his human rights advocacy. During his detention, he has been subjected to beatings, solitary confinement, and forced sleep deprivation and denied access to a lawyer, family, food, and required medication. Prior to being arrested, Waleed represented other human rights champions, including Raif and Samar Badawi, who exemplify the struggle for freedom of expression and gender equality. Waleed’s arbitrary and unjust imprisonment serves as a looking glass into the systematic pattern of persecution and prosecution of human rights defenders and their ability to protect their fellow citizens’ fundamental human rights in Saudi Arabia.

UNWGAD Opinion | Washington Post Op-Ed

Leopoldo Lopez (Venezuela)

Venezuelan democratic opposition leader Leopoldo López has been detained since February 18, 2014, targeted as part of a crackdown on peaceful protests that left 43 dead, 3,000 detained, and scores of political prisoners.  His cruel and inhumane imprisonment was the result of a sham trial – underpinned by the state-sanctioned persecution and prosecution of democratic leaders – and where the Regime acknowledged in its own indictment that López repeatedly and publicly called for peaceful, non-violent action to secure change to the country within the parameters of Venezuela’s Constitution.

White Paper  | UNWGAD Opinion  | New York Times Profile  |  Policy Options Feature

Dr. Wang Bingzhang (China)

Dr. Wang Bingzhang – Leader of the China Overseas Democracy Movement – was illegally abducted from Vietnam, wherein he was convicted of trumped-up charges and sentenced to life imprisonment in solitary confinement in China. This grievous sentence followed a sham trial – held in secret for only a day – at which he was denied the right to speak, and the right to counsel. Undergoing torture in detention has caused Dr. Wang to suffer several debilitating strokes and other severe physical and mental disabilities, which worsen as he continues languishing in prison.

UNWGAD Opinion | UN Joint Urgent Appeal | The Globe & Mail Op-Ed | HuffPost Op-Ed | National Post Op-Ed


Sun Qian (China)

Sun Qian is a Canadian Falun Gong practitioner, arrested on February 19, 2017, in Beijing and imprisoned on false charges. Denied her right to freedom of religion and belief, she has been jailed solely for her belief in Falun Gong  – a peaceful meditation discipline centred on the values of truth, compassion, and tolerance  – whose practitioners are brutally persecuted and prosecuted by Chinese Authorities. Ms. Sun has been tortured in detention, and her fundamental rights violated.

Epoch Times: Asking for Release | The Globe & Mail Op-Ed

Alexei Pichugin (Russia)

Alexey Pichugin is the longest-serving political prisoner in Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Pichugin was arrested on June 19, 2003 – the first strike in Putin’s kleptocratic campaign to unlawfully expropriate the Yukos Oil Company – and imprisoned in the notorious Black Dolphin FSB jail. A mid-level manager at Yukos, Pichugin was tortured in detention and encouraged to provide false testimony against CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was targeted for his human rights and pro-democracy leadership. Pichugin has been languishing in prison for 15 years, based on an unfair trial that the European Court of Human Rights ruled was a violation of International Human Rights Law. The Court – echoing many independent and indisputable voices for justice and human rights around the world – have called for his release.

White Paper | UNWGAD Petition | The Hill Op-Ed | The Washington Post Op-Ed WSJ Op-Ed

Anastasia Shevchenko (Russia) 

Anastasia Shevchenko is an activist with the Open Russia movement and, as a direct result, on January 21, 2019, became one of the Kremlin’s newest political prisoners. She was the first person arrested and criminally charged under the Kremlin’s new and Kafkaesque “undesirables organization” law (Criminal Code Article 284.1), which allows the government to criminalize participation in any pro-democracy, civil society non-governmental organization. Her unjust imprisonment, underpinned by a lawlessness best described by the Stalinist dictum of “show me the person, and I will show you the crime,” is part of the Kremlin’s recent crackdown of fundamental freedoms and dissent that must be condemned at the highest levels, lest the Kremlin’s prevailing pattern of persecution and prosecution – and the pain and plight of the Russian people – intensify. 

RWCHR Statement | The Washington Post Op-Ed | The Ottawa Citizen Op-Ed | Report

Leila de Lima (Philippines)

Leila de Lima is a lawyer, human rights activist, former Chairperson of the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, former Philippine Secretary of Justice and current member of the Philippine Senate. She is an ardent critique of the Philippine Drug War having repeatedly called for, and participated in, investigations into the commission of extrajudicial killings. Her courageous advocacy for the rule of law and opposition to President Duterte’s human rights violations have led to fabricated and politically motivated charges against her. As a result, she has been languishing in jail since February 24, 2016.

UNWGAD Opinion | UN Joint Urgent Appeal | New York Times Op-Ed | Time Feature | Rappler

Ayatollah Boroujerdi (Iran)

Ayatollah Hossein Kazemeyni Boroujerdi has been imprisoned and tortured in detention since October 8, 2006, representing a case study of prisoners of conscience. He has advocated for religious freedom, leading benediction ceremonies in the presence of Shi’ites and Sunnis, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and the Baha’i. Boroujerdi has also advocated for adherence to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, calling for the abolition of capital punishment and for an end to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment such as torture, stoning and whipping. Initially sentenced to death after a sham trial, his sentence was commuted in August 2007 to eleven years in prison. Despite having served the mandated prison time, Ayatollah Boroujerdi remains under house-arrest. He is currently being denied urgent medical care, a form of passive execution.

White Paper | UNWGAD Opinion

Maryam Mombeini (Iran)

Maryam Mombeini – the wife of Professor Seyed-Emami who the Iranian regime purports, without evidence, committed suicide after his arrest and detention in the notorious Evin Prison – is a Canadian citizen who was barred from leaving Iran on a Canada-bound flight with her sons, also Canadian citizens, Ramin and Mehran Seyed-Emami. The seizure of her passport and her continued detention in Iran – a direct consequence of her expressing doubt regarding her late spouse's purported suicide – reflects the pattern of intimidation, harassment, abuse and potential imprisonment the family members of former political prisoners experience on a ongoing basis.

White Paper | The Guardian Op-Ed  |  Public statement

Narges Mohammadi (Iran)

Physicist, journalist, and Human Rights Defender Narges Mohammadi was first arrested in 2009 and unjustly sentenced to 11 years in prison for the false charges of “assembly and collusion against national security,” “membership in the Defenders of Human Rights Center,” and “propaganda against the state.” Following immense international pressure, her sentence was reduced to six years and she was released from Zanjan Prison upon appeal in 2013. However, she was arrested again on May 5, 2015 – targeted for continuing her advocacy for human rights in Iran – and sentenced in September 2016 to 16 years of imprisonment. Her peaceful human rights leadership has included campaigning for women’s rights, pluralism and tolerance, and against the death penalty and torture.

New York Times  |  Andrei Sakharov Prize  |  1000 Days in Prison

Nasrin Sotoudeh (Iran)

Nasrin Sotoudeh – a brave human rights lawyer, defender of women's rights, children's rights and journalists – symbolizes the Iranian regime's systematic pattern of persecution and prosecution. First imprisoned in 2010 sentenced to 11 years in prison – later released after three years due to international outcry – for defending the vulnerable, including those arrested during the Green Movement uprising, in 2009. The criminalization of her innocence continued more recently as she was, in Kafkaesque fashion, convicted in absentia on trumped up charges for her defense of the courageous women who took part in the Girls of Revolution Street protest unveiling in defiance of the compulsory hijab dress code. Since her imprisonment, Nasrin languishes in prison alongside the political prisoners she readily defended before becoming one herself. 

National Post Op-Ed  |  The New YorkerAndrei Sakharov Prize Canadian Parliamentarians

Members of the Baha’ì faith (Iran, Yemen)

Community members of the Bahá’í faith are systematically persecuted, prosecuted, and ultimately imprisoned on the basis of their religion in a state-orchestrated campaign of discrimination. In Iran, close to 100 members of the Bahá’í faith are currently imprisoned; this included seven leaders of the Iranian Bahá’í, known as the Yaran, unjustly sentenced to 20 years in prison for exercising their right to freedom of religion in 2008, who were released over the course of 2017 and 2018 after the RWCHR took up their cases and causes. More recently, the oppression and repression of the Bahá’ís in Iran has extended to Houthi-controlled Yemen – an explicit policy of Iran’s Khamenei, evidenced by a once-secret government memorandum – where dozens of community members have been arbitrarily arrested, detained, charged, and sentenced on spurious charges. 

UN Statement | Report on Baha’i in Iran |  UN Special Rapporteur’s Statement

Former Political Prisoners Currently Enjoying Freedom

Saeed Malekpour (Iran)

Web designer Saeed Malekpour, at the time a Canadian Permanent Resident, was arbitrarily arrested in 2008 when visiting his ailing father in Iran. Targeted as part of a crackdown on freedom of expression online and serving as a case-study in the criminalization of innocence in Khamenei’s Iran, Malekpour was initially sentenced to death – later commuted to life in prison due to international outcry – and was subsequently tortured in solitary confinement and denied adequate medical care for eleven years in Iran’s notorious Evin Prison. Saeed was granted a three-day furlough as a result of sustained international pressure, which the RWCHR played an integral part in mobilizing and escaped via a third country to Canada, without the sanction of authorities in Iran. Canadian authorities then quickly reinstated Saeed’s status as Permanent Canadian Resident, facilitating his reunion with his sister, who he had not seen for over a decade. On August 2, 2019, Saeed landed in Vancouver, Canada, the place Saeed called home prior to his unjust imprisonment. Since his return to Canada, Saeed has enjoyed typical Canadian activities, including picnics and lakeside leisure.

RWCHR Statement | UNWGAD Petition | WSJ Op-Ed  | Campaign at UofT Toronto Star: The Prisoner Left Behind |

Our previous engagements

Over the years, the Centre’s Chair and Founder, Professor Irwin Cotler, has taken up the cases and causes of many of the world’s most courageous human rights defenders, including Nelson Mandela (Apartheid South Africa), who Cotler represented as his Canadian Legal Counsel, Natan Sharanksy (Soviet Union), who Cotler ardently defended and submitted a legal brief on behalf of, and Saad Edin Ibrahim (Egypt), who supported Cotler’s nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, referring to him as a “quiet hero,” following Cotler’s activism.

Freedom isn't free. Support the Wallenberg Centre.