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, but Ibadoghlu will not be around. He is 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 is not: Someday, it could be you.
Mostly when we think of political prisoners, it is people like Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who recently and ominously, went missing within the Russian prison system. The once bull-like former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili 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 this year’s Nobel Peace Prize.
Arbitrary arrest is the calling card of governments that do not permit the judicial independence that protects us from their whims, and you do not 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.
Illustration: Louise Ting
Wall Street Journal journalist Evan Gershkovich has now been in a Russian jail for nine months. Russian President Vladimir Putin said talks are under way with the US, but it has not 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 last year. A full list would fill multiple columns.
In the not-too-distant future, you might 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 former US president 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 percent of Americans, 34 percent of French and 50 percent 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.
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 Turkish 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 US-based Turkish preacher 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 is 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 businesspeople,” said 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 UN 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, when he was arrested while helping to build a home church, something frowned upon by a state that jails thousands for their religious beliefs.
China’s motivations in some of these cases are murky. Not so the arrests of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. The two Canadian nationals were detained in December 2018, in a clear instance of hostage diplomacy. Just days earlier, Canada had — in answer to a US extradition request — detained Huawei Technologies Co chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou (孟晚舟) in connection with an investigation into sanctions-busting by the company’s subsidiary in Iran. The two men were released as soon as Meng was, almost three years later.
In Iran, Floderus was arrested while on a tourist visit, days before the close of a trial in Sweden that would sentence a former Iranian prosecutor — arrested while passing through a Swedish airport — to life for his role in a 1988 mass execution of political prisoners. This month, just before another Swedish court upheld that sentence on appeal, Floderus was finally charged with the unlikely crimes of spying for Israel and “corruption on earth,” a catch-all that carries a maximum sentence of life or execution.
Businesspeople who deal with these countries in any way can and should help, Kamm said.
Anyone hosting a Chinese delegation should ask about political prisoners.
“Say their names,” he said. “If you ask a Chinese official about a political prisoner, they have to report it.”
The more mentions, the more likely it is that the authorities might reassess the value of holding the prisoner. That is no less true of Iran, where it can be months before the outside world even becomes aware someone has been arrested, said Jasmin Ramsey, deputy director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based advocacy group.
Ibadoghlu’s adult sons, Ibad and Emin, say they will spend most of the holidays worrying about their father’s health. He has a heart condition and diabetes, and like many governments that take political prisoners, Azerbaijan’s has weaponized medical care by rationing it.
“He can’t walk anymore,” said Ibad, who now lives in Sweden and, like his brother in the US, spends every spare moment lobbying governments and international organizations for his father’s release.
Azeri prosecutors accuse Gubad Ibadoghlu, 52, of counterfeiting. They say they found US$40,000 in the home office he left behind in 2014 during a crackdown on regime opponents and civil society organizations.
Two months later, investigators also said they had found copies of extremist religious literature. When I caught up with Hikmet Hajiyev, foreign policy adviser to Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, while he was on a visit to London last week, he said he could not comment before the investigation was complete, but that there were questions around Gubad Ibadoghlu’s alleged connections to the Fethullah Gulen movement.
Ibad and Emin ridiculed that idea, not least because their father is not remotely religious. The real reason for the arrest, they said, is that while in Baku, on June 27, the registration came through for a new UK charity Gubad Ibadoghlu was creating to fund scholarships for Azeri kids not vetted, controlled or paid for by the state to study abroad. He announced that on Facebook and made no secret of the fact that his aim was to pay for much of the program by accessing some of the millions of pounds of money the UK has been confiscating from regime-connected Azeris unable to explain the source of their London wealth.
The boys, like Kamm and Ramsey, just ask that people keep raising and protesting their father’s case. By now, they are focused more on getting him medical care than getting him out, worried that he could slip into a diabetic coma. Ibad Ibadoghlu said: “The worst dream of any political prisoner is to be forgotten.”
Marc Champion is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Europe, Russia and the Middle East. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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