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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson December 11, 2012

U.S. has helped many dissidents, though not all, go free

As a candidate in 2008, Barack Obama said he would "work for the release of jailed scholars, activists, and opposition party leaders such as Ayman Nour in Egypt."

As we wrote in a previous update, Nour was released on Feb. 18, 2009, shortly after Obama was inaugurated. What about other dissidents?

The best-known dissident to win freedom during Obama's tenure is Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese opposition leader who spent years under house arrest and won the Nobel Peace Prize.

As we have noted, Obama visited Burma -- sometimes called Myanmar -- shortly after winning reelection in 2012. It included a stop at the home where she was held in house arrest until November 2010.

Obama's visit was widely considered a way for the United States to encourage further reforms initiated by the Burmese government in 2011. "This remarkable journey has just begun, and has much further to go," Obama said. "Reforms launched from the top of society must meet the aspirations of citizens who form its foundation."
Alan D. Romberg, director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, a foreign-policy think tank, said that "the dramatic turnaround in Burma has a lot to do with the U.S."

We asked Amnesty International for a list of other dissidents who had been freed during Obama"s tenure, as well as a list of others who have not been freed. While negotiations over the fate of dissidents are often not disclosed publicly, a spokeswoman for Amnesty International said it is widely believed that the U.S. government had made efforts to push for the release of most if not all of the people on the following lists, either directly or indirectly.

Dissidents freed


• Jabbar Savalan, blogger and political activist


• Zargarnar, comedian and film director


• Jean-Claude Mbede, jailed on charges of homosexuality


• Mao Hengfeng, women's rights activist
• Wang Xiaoning, pro-democracy activist


• Yekaterina Samutsevich, member of the punk rock band Pussy Riot

Dissidents who remain in custody


• Liu Xiaobo, writer, professor and pro-democracy activist


• Filep Karma, advocate for the Papuan ethnic group


• Behrouz Ghobadi, brother of an exiled Iranian filmmaker, Bahman Ghobadi, whose work has often criticized the government.


• Nadezhda Tolokonnikova, member of the punk rock band Pussy Riot
• Maria Alyokhina, member of the punk rock band Pussy Riot

Amnesty International also noted that there are 55 detainees at Guantanamo who are cleared for release but who have not been released yet, often because a country cannot be found to take them.

The Obama administration's record in securing the release of dissidents isn't perfect, but given the difficulty of dealing with sometimes hostile governments, it's still pretty impressive. Because he did say the U.S. would "work for the release" of dissidents, we think it's appropriate to give the administration a Promise Kept.

Our Sources

Robert Farley
By Robert Farley January 6, 2010

In first year, Obama has mostly tried quiet diplomacy

President Barack Obama scored an early victory on this promise when Egyptian authorities announced on Feb. 18, 2009, the release of Ayman Nour. Nour, who challenged Egypt's longtime president, Hosni Mubarak, in a 2005 election, was sentenced to five years in prison on widely criticized charges of forgery related to the election. Although due to be held until 2010, Egyptian officials said Nour was released early for medical reasons. The move was widely regarded as a goodwill gesture to Obama, who had been inaugurated just a few weeks earlier.

But victories on the release of international dissidents have been infrequent since then.

Tom Malinowski, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch, said Obama has mostly adopted a behind-the-scenes diplomatic approach in seeking the release of dissidents.

"Overall, his approach in the first year has been to press for releases in a more quiet, private way," Malinowski said. "So you haven't seen him out there very often demanding the release of particular political prisoners. For the most part, he has tried to build up relationships with governments around the world, and then use those relationships to encourage the release of political prisoners. But I would say, he hasn't been all that successful."

There have been a few exceptions to Obama's private efforts.

On several occasions, for example, Obama has publicly called on Mynamar, also called Burma, to immediately release political dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, although she remains under house arrest.

And on the May 1 World Press Freedom Day, Obama publicly singled out J.S. Tissainayagam, a Sri Lankan journalist sentenced to 20 years in jail for "causing communal disharmony."

"That's one they (members of the Obama administration) have worked hard on," Malinowski said.

More often, however, Obama has tried to seek the release of international dissidents in private meetings with various world leaders. Such was the case, for example, when Obama visited China in November and in private discussions with Chinese officials pressed for the release of a number of political dissidents. One of the most prominent of the group was Liu Xiaobo, a Beijing writer who organized a petition seeking greater democracy for China. Despite those private discussions, Liu Xiaobo was sentenced on Dec. 25, 2009, to 11 years in prison after being found guilty by a Beijing court of ''inciting subversion of state power.''

Obama spoke to his approach in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway on Dec. 10, 2009.

"The promotion of human rights cannot be about exhortation alone," Obama said. "At times, it must be coupled with painstaking diplomacy. I know that engagement with repressive regimes lacks the satisfying purity of indignation. But I also know that sanctions without outreach -- condemnation without discussion -- can carry forward only a crippling status quo. No repressive regime can move down a new path unless it has the choice of an open door."

Said Malinowski: "I couldn't say Obama hasn't tried hard. He has. But he has done it in a fairly private way thus far."

It remains to be seen, Malinowski said, what Obama will do if those private, diplomatic efforts continue to be largely fruitless.

In this promise, Obama promised to work toward the release of international dissidents, and although results are spotty, we think he has done enough to move this one to In the Works.

Our Sources

White House Web site, Statement by the President on Aung San Suu Kyi"s conviction and sentencing , Aug. 11, 2009

White House Web site, Remarks by President Barack Obama at Suntory Hall, Tokyo, Japan , Nov. 14, 2009

White House Web site, Remarks by the President at the Acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway , Dec. 10, 2009

White House Web site, Statement by the President in honor of World Press Freedom Day , May 1, 2009

Los Angeles Times, "Egypt unexpectedly frees dissident," by Jeffrey Fleishman and Noha El-Hennawy, Feb. 19, 2009

New York Times, "China Writer Fights Penalty Over Charter On Rights," by Michael Wines, Jan. 5, 2010

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