The Renew Democracy Initiative is proud to present Frontlines of Freedom, a groundbreaking project bringing together 52 dissidents from 28 oppressive countries. As RDI Freedom Fellows, these activists have signed onto an open letter highlighting their hopes and fears for American democracy and reminding Americans of the US’s potential to serve as a global democratic inspiration. Working with RDI, CNN Opinion is running an original series – “Voices of Freedom,” featuring 13 of these dissidents who share their struggles for democracy in written and video form. Read on for their stories.

A CNN original series, Voices of Freedom, highlights the stories of 13 of these dissidents

American
Democracy

is facing unprecedented threats.

American
Democracy

is facing unprecedented threats.

An attack on the Capitol.

© Bgrocker | Dreamstime.com
© Brandilyon | Dreamstime.com

A battle over
our history.

Creator: DAVID RYDER | Credit: REUTERS

Crippling polarization.

Most Americans
today haven’t had

to FIGHT
FOR LIBERTY.

But for billions of people
living under authoritarian regimes,

THIS IS THEIR EVERYDAY REALITY.

A mob attacks pro-democracy protesters
at Yuen Long MTR station.

Hong Kong
July 21, 2019

Riot police fire rubber bullets and
stun grenades on protesters.

Minsk, Belarus
October 25, 2020

Military vehicles run over protesters.

Caracas, Venezuela
April 30, 2019

How far would you go

TO FIGHT FOR DEMOCRACY?

Creator: JEKESAI NJIKIZANA | Credit: AFP via Getty Images

This is Evan Mawarire.

He’s a Zimbabwean pastor who spoke out against widespread corruption, poverty, and human rights abuses by the government of Robert Mugabe.

On April 19, 2016, Evan posted a video to Facebook denouncing the government for turning its back on the country’s values. He urged citizens not to turn their back on Zimbabwe.

Play Video

Evan’s video inspired tens of thousands of others, all using #ThisFlag, and all calling for a democratic Zimbabwe.

#ThisFlag

Three months later, Evan was the face of a massive democracy movement, with protests taking place around the country.

THEN, THE GOVERNMENT
CAME AFTER HIM.

ARRESTED: 2016, 2017, 2019.

Through it all, the government could never silence Evan.

Fighting for democracy

IS NEVER EASY.

"The American republic may have its flaws, but there is nothing wrong with American democracy that cannot be fixed by American democracy.”

– Garry Kasparov, RDI Chairman, Russia

“It is dangerous and irresponsible to believe that the US can abrogate its duties as the leader of the free world without consequences in the regions of the world where democracy is still struggling to establish a foothold.”

– Andrei Sannikov, Former Presidential Candidate. Belarus
– Alexander Vindman, Lt. Col. (Ret.). USA

At only 16, I had been accused of being an anti-revolutionary and sent to the notorious Evin prison. I was tortured, physically and emotionally, and then I was married off to one of my interrogators, who was assassinated 15 months after the marriage.

– Marina Nemat, Author, Iran

These dissidents have risked prison, death, and worse in pursuit of a fraction of the freedoms that many people take for granted.

Their experience has led them to sign onto an open letter to Americans.

Throughout their lives, they have all been inspired by American democracy.

Now, they are terrified for it.

Here’s what American
democracy means to them.

What does American
democracy mean to you?

"The symbol of American democracy is still the most potent global force for freedom, and without it the world – including my home country -- faces a dark future."

– Fatou Jaw-Manneh, Journalist & Political Commentator, The Gambia

American democracy is an inspiration for the world, but that reputation is faltering.

Americans are so torn apart by politics that many are willing to sacrifice democratic values for political gain.

The discussion of controversial ideas is increasingly under threat.

Denying the results of free and fair elections poses a fatal threat to democracy.

America’s crippling polarization aids dictators who use it to justify their own oppressive rule.

The appropriate response to any democratic crisis must be to reaffirm our commitment to the fundamental principles of democracy.

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Preamble

With faith in American democracy at its lowest point in years, 52 dissidents from 28 countries have come together to sign this letter, celebrating America’s founding values but also warning of the dangers that may lay ahead if those values—especially freedom of speech—are compromised. They are writers, journalists, artists, activists, and political figures who have fought against a brutal dictatorship in Belarus, defended transgender rights in Ethiopia, been jailed for condemning extrajudicial killings in the Philippines, and survived assassination attempts and solitary confinement in an attempt to bring democracy back to Venezuela. These dissidents have risked their lives for a fraction of the freedoms that Americans take for granted.

They have no vested interest in America’s partisan battles but offer instead a sober warning about growing disinformation, threats to voting rights, and an environment that is increasingly inhospitable to free and open discourse in the United States. Our signatories recognize that to win the global fight against authoritarianism, America must once again believe in and live up to its own values. American principles have always inspired them. Perhaps now, their stories can inspire us.

An Open Letter on American Democracy from Global Dissidents

As dissidents and human rights activists from authoritarian regimes, we know what it means to be punished for speaking our minds. In our home countries, we have experienced censorship not just from our governments, but also from our fellow citizens. We have seen how threats to free discourse can imperil democracy, and have always looked to America’s founding principles for inspiration. Yet, alarmingly, we are starting to hear the censorious echoes of these trends in the United States—echoes which may well develop into something more dangerous if they aren’t addressed.

Americans find themselves in an environment in which the discussion of controversial ideas is increasingly under siege from extremes across the political spectrum. People should not fear for their jobs or their safety for expressing unpopular points of view. Controversial opinions should be debated, not silenced; free societies need unorthodox opinions to ensure freedom, pursue truth, and challenge authority.

To decry the climate of fear and self-censorship taking hold in the United States is not to suggest it is equivalent to totalitarian state repression. Nor is it to deny that even in America, other forces—like the violent rioters who attacked the US Capitol, and the disinformation and conspiracy theories that drove them—pose a more immediate threat to democracy. Far too many people have expressed willingness to disregard the results of free and fair elections. This is unacceptable in a free society. But the appropriate response to any democratic crisis must be to reaffirm our commitment to the fundamental principles of democracy, especially free speech and civil discourse.

Instead of censoring opinions with which we disagree, we can challenge them in a vibrant marketplace of ideas. And instead of permanently shunning people if they make a mistake, we should keep redemption on the table. Maintaining an open society is essential to America’s political health and should be a matter of concern for everyone who is fighting for a freer and fairer world.

Dictators in our home countries—of all political leanings—use the shortcomings of American institutions to justify the existence of their illiberal regimes. When we look at America, we don’t see Republicans and Democrats; we see Americans who are so torn apart by polarization that some are willing to sacrifice their democratic values for political gain. Manifest in attacks on both voting rights and freedom of speech, this self-destructive trend in the US is a useful new tool for dictators back home who seize on this dynamic to justify ever-harsher repression. If the world’s leading democracy doesn’t believe in its own values, why should dictators even bother paying lip service to them? We must defend these principles that inspire advocates of liberty and provide a crucial check on tyrants. The advancement of freedom depends on it.

We should not expect to defeat illiberalism with illiberalism. The freedom to dissent or advance unpopular points of view without fear of punishment is a requirement of all just societies—whether in countries known to uphold the traditional values of democracy or those that have hardly enjoyed any political liberty. We need to stand in solidarity against the forces that threaten this freedom everywhere.

We need allies! Will you join us?


What does American democracy mean to you?

Additional Information

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52 Dissidents | 28 Countries

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Sign the open letter.

Aaron Berhane

Aaron Berhane passed away in May 2021. He was an Eritrean journalist, publisher, and co-founder and editor-in-chief of Setit, Eritrea’s first and largest independent newspaper. For challenging the repressive government, Setit was raided and shut down in 2001. Many of its journalists were arrested, and some died in prison. Aaron spent 103 days in hiding before crossing the border into Sudan in disguise. His family, wife, and three children could not escape with him and remained in Eritrea another decade. They were constantly spied on, threatened, and harassed.

As a refugee in Canada, Aaron worked menial jobs before becoming a college professor and founding another newspaper for the Eritrean community. He was awarded the 2003/04 Donner Canadian Journalists for Free Expression Fellowship and the 2019 PEN Canada-Humber College Writers-in-Exile Scholarship.

Abdulrahman Matar

Abdulrahman Matar is a journalist, poet, author, and activist for human rights and freedom of expression in Syria. His articles and novels have led to his arrest on five different occasions, and he was a prisoner of conscience for almost 10 years. His novel Wild Mirage is an account of his political imprisonment, torture, deprivation, abuse, and oppression.

Abdulrahman Matar became a Canadian resident in 2015 and is currently a researcher of human rights and terrorism issues. He is the founder and director of the Mediterranean Studies Center and Syrian-Mediterranean Cultural Forum, SEEGULL.

Ahmed Naji

Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian novelist and journalist who was sentenced to two years in prison for sexually suggestive excerpts in his novel The Use of Life. He served a total of 10 months in prison before he was released for a retrial, though he was forbidden from leaving Egypt. A year after his release, the travel ban was lifted, and in July 2018 he fled to the US. He has been in exile ever since.

Ahmed Naji currently serves as  A city of asylum fellow at Black Mountain Institute (UNLV) . On May 16, 2016, he was awarded the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.

Andréi Sannikov

Andrei Sannikov is a former Deputy Foreign Minister for Belarus who ran for president against dictator Alexander Lukashenko in 2010. During a protest on the night of the election, Andréi was beaten by the police and arrested. His family was never notified of his well-being, and months went by without anyone knowing if he was alive or dead. Facing pressure from Western governments, Lukashenko released Andréi in 2012 after almost a year and a half in prison.
Andrei now lives in exile and is part of the civil campaign “European Belarus,” which seeks for Belarus to join the European Union.

Audrey Mbugua

Audrey Mbugua is a Kenyan human rights activist who won a landmark case for transgender rights in 2014. Audrey transitioned after graduating, but the discrepancy between her academic certificates and her new name and gender had hampered her job opportunities in Kenya. When the Examinations Council wouldn’t update her certificates upon request, she sued; the High Court of Kenya ruled in her favor. Almost two years later, Audrey turned her attention to the Senate of Kenya, where she demanded that the 2016 Health Bill do more to address and destigmatize reassignment surgery and therapy.

Audrey Mbugua continues to fight for transgender rights at home in Kenya and abroad. She heads Transgender Education and Advocacy (TEA), an international organization that defends the rights of transgender people. In 2014, she was nominated by the Dutch ministry of Foreign Affairs for the Human Rights Tulip Award.

 

Berta Valle

Berta Valle is a well-known Nicaraguan activist, social communicator, and human rights defender. In 2016, Ms. Valle was nominated as an independent to represent Managua in the National Assembly by the Independent Liberal Party as part of its National Coalition for Democracy. However, Nicaragua’s Supreme Court, controlled by Ortega-loyalists, disqualified the party’s electoral coalition and Ms. Valle was blocked from running.

Since 2018, Berta, her daughter, and mother-in-law have been living in exile abroad due to the political persecution against her husband, Félix Maradiaga, and their family. As a result of the enforced disappearance and detention of her husband, she coordinates defense teams that support Félix inside and outside of Nicaragua. On July 27, 2021, the Nicaraguan Public Ministry and Nicaraguan National Police published press releases reporting that the Ortega regime had found Ms. Valle summarily guilty, in absentia and without charge or trial, of being a “traitor to the homeland,” based on so-called “investigations” into her international advocacy in defense of her political prisoner husband.

Claudia Escobar

Judge Claudia Escobar is a Guatemalan lawyer and former magistrate of the Court of Appeals who fled to the US in 2015 after receiving death threats for presenting a complaint against the Vice President of Guatemala, the former Head of Congress, and other powerful officials. Believing that an independent judiciary is the most powerful tool against corruption, Claudia continues fighting and advocating for apolitical rule of law in Central America.

She is a visiting professor at George Mason University, and a centennial fellow at Georgetown University. Was previously awarded fellowships at Harvard University and the National Endowment for Democracy. She was selected to be a commissioner for the International Experts Commission against Corruption in Ecuador by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Government of Ecuador.

Enes Kanter

Enes is a professional basketball player for the Boston Celtics and Turkish-born democracy advocate. He’s used his platform as a professional athlete to bring attention to abuses against the Turkish people by Recep Erdoğan’s regime, turning him into an enemy of the state. In 2017, the Turkish government revoked his passport and issued an arrest warrant for Enes. Despite repeated threats against his life and his family, Enes continues to fight for a free Turkey.

In October of 2021, Enes began a new campaign to pressure Chinese ruler Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party to respect human rights, end the Uyghur genocide, support an independent Hong Kong, & Tibet, and end the persecution of Chinese citizens. In partnership with the artist Chinese dissident artist Badiucao, he plays NBA games in various pairs of custom-painted shoes calling for political change and drawing attention to the atrocities of the Chinese government. 

Evan Mawarire

Evan Mawarire is a Zimbabwean democracy activist and clergyman who founded #ThisFlag Citizen’s Movement to fight corruption, injustice, and poverty in Zimbabwe. President Robert Mugabe’s government imprisoned Evan in 2016, and he was imprisoned three more times in 2017 when he prayed with protestors and spke about Zimbabwe’s economic woes at his church. In 2019, under President Emmerson Mnangagwa, he was arrested for organizing a boycott and was later charged with sedition. For leading the most popular pro-democracy social media movement in Zimbabwe’s history, Evan was forced into exile in the US.

 

Foreign Policy named Evan Mawarire one of the 100 Global Thinkers of 2016. Daily Maverick of South Africa named him 2016 African of the Year. He is a 2018 Stanford University Fellow of the Centre for Democracy Development and the Rule of Law. Evan was a nominee for the 2017 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards and the Swedish government’s 2018 Per Anger Prize.

 

Faisal Al-Mutar

Faisal is an Iraqi-born counter extremism advocate, satirist, and speaker. As a result of his secular lifestyle, he was repeatedly targeted for kidnapping and threatened. In 2013, he had to flee Iraq for the U.S.

Faisal is an advocate for Universal Human Rights, enlightenment values and the free market of ideas, and is enthusiastic about the intersection of technology and advocacy. He is also the founder of multiple online platforms that together have more than 400,000 subscribers and millions of visitors. He previously worked as a program manager for the Middle East and North Africa to assist dissidents in closed societies worldwide. In 2015, Faisal received the “President’s Volunteer Service Award” from President Barack Obama for his special commitment to education.

Farid Noori

Farid Noori was born in Afghanistan when the Taliban took over the country the first time (1995). Soon, after his family–members of the Hazara ethnic minority–escaped Taliban persecution to Pakistan. There, he began his education in a school for Afghan refugees. After 9/11 and with the promise of democracy in Afghanistan, Farid moved back to Afghanistan with his family like millions of other Afghans to take part in the reconstruction of their war-torn country. In 2011, Farid came to the US on a State Department high school exchange program and managed to stay on a series of educational scholarships. In 2018, Farid founded the nonprofit organization Mountain Bike Afghanistan to empower Afghan youth through the joy of riding and competing on mountain bikes and connecting people across cultures over their shared love of cycling. The organization uses cycling to actively promote joy and peace, and achieve gender equality in Afghan society. Farid was a competitive mountain biker himself, representing Afghanistan and his organization in elite-level races across the US as the face of a younger Afghan generation that was empowered to catch up with the rest of the world in all aspects of civic and socioeconomic life; in his particular case, through sports.

 

Farida Bemba Nabourema

Farida Nabourema is a Togolese writer and pro-democracy activist living in exile for fear of death if she returns to Togo. In 2014, she published a book titled La Pression de l’Oppression (The Pressure of Oppression) highlighting the struggle African people face and the need for African youth and women to be politically engaged. Farida’s work focuses on promoting Pan-Africanism while denouncing corruption and dictatorship.

Farida is the cofounder of the “”Faure Must Go”” movement, which protests the current dictatorship in Togo. She is also the Executive Director of the Togolese Civil League, an NGO that promotes democracy and human rights in Togo through grassroots organizing, civic education, and advocacy. She is a 2021 Jennings Randolph Senior Research Fellow at USIP, where she is conducting research on gender-based repression in nonviolent movements in Africa. She is also an Inclusive Global Leadership Initiative adjunct professor at the Joseph Korbel School of International Studies.


Fatou Jaw-Manneh

Fatou Jaw-Manneh is a Gambian journalist and political activist whose criticism of Gambian President Yahya Jammeh and his authoritarian government eventually led to her exile and arrest. She received  political asylum in the US in 1994. On a trip back to the country in 2007 following the passing of her father, Fatou was arrested on a four-count charge: sedition, publication of seditious words, publication of false information and uttering seditious words. She was on trial for a year and a half but was able to pay an exorbitant fine and escape again. She has since returned to The Gambia and continues her pro-democracy advocacy.

Fatou is known as “”Gambia’s Iron Lady”” and “”The Dame of The Flaming Pen.”” In 2007, she won the Oxfam Novib/PEN International Free Expression Award, and in 2009 she won the Hellman/Hammett award from Human Rights Watch. She was a Oslo Freedom Forum Speaker. She is President of Sukuta Eco Political Forum, a community & grassroots organization on civil political discourse and protecting the forest parks and environment against government and Chinese companies engaged in illegal fishing and timber trade in The Gambia and Africa.

Felix Agbor Nkongho Balla

Felix Agbor Nkongho Balla is a human rights lawyer in Cameroon. As a result of his advocacy, he was arrested in 2017. Felix was blindfolded, handcuffed, and taken to the notorious Kondengui Prison in Yaounde, Cameroon. There, he was threatened with the death penalty and sent before a military tribunal. After eight months of imprisonment, including 45 days in solitary confinement, he was released through a presidential decree and all charges against him were dropped.

Felix worked as a Legal Officer with the International Criminal Court for Sierra Leone, the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, and the United Nations Police in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He is also the Founder and President of the CENTRE for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa  (CHRDA), where he provides pro-bono legal services to thousands of victims of human rights abuses.

Francis "Kiko" Pangilinan

Senator Francis “Kiko” Pangilinan is president of the Liberal Party of the Philippines and chairperson of the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats. He has angered the ruling party in the Philippines for speaking out against mass murder disguised as a “war on drugs,” China’s occupation of Filipino islands, misogyny, and the ruling government’s relentless attacks on freedom and democracy. He champions human rights, social justice, and the rule of law.

Gani Stambekov

Garry Kasparov

Garry Kasparov is a World Chess Champion, political activist, and outspoken critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He fled Russia when Putin won a third term, fearing prosecution when Putin began conducting sham investigations into political activists involved in Russia’s mass protests of 2011. Garry was a prime target as the founder of the United Civil Front, an organization devoted to preserving electoral democracy in Russia, and as a former candidate for Russia’s presidency. Garry initially rose to stardom as the USSR Under-18 chess champion, winning at the age of 12, and becoming the youngest World Chess Champion in history at age 22. He leveraged this fame for a distinguished post-chess career promoting liberal democracy in Russia and abroad.

In 2017, he founded the Renew Democracy Initiative.

Hasan Ali Yurtsever

Dr. Hasan Ali Yurtsever is the Executive Director of the Huddled Masses organization which helps victims of political and religious persecution, particularly those from Turkey, integrate to life in the United States. 

Hasan also serves as the Muslim faith advisor at Benedictine University in Illinois and was President of the Rumi Forum in DC. He earned his B.S. from Boğaziçi University and M.S. and PhD from Ege University and taught in the math department at Georgetown University.                                                                                                                                                                                       

Ilhan Tanir

Executive Editor, Ahval News

Ilhan Tanir is a Washington, DC-based journalist who has covered U.S. politics and U.S-Turkish relations for Turkish national newspapers and online publications for more than a decade. Tanir was a columnist for Hürriyet Daily News from 2009 to 2013 and a correspondent for the Turkish daily Vatan from 2009 until 2014. He then reported for the BBC Turkish Service and the Cumhuriyet newspaper. In January 2017, Tanir launched the bilingual Washington Hatti news website which focuses on Turkish-U.S. relations and draws on contributors, writers, and editors from around the world. Tanir writes extensively on Turkish domestic politics, Turkey-U.S. relations, as well as issues related to the wider Middle East and Eurasia region. He has also reported from Syria several times since the war began there in 2011 and is a frequent commentator on Turkish and Western television news networks. Tanir received his master’s degree from George Mason University and is a graduate of Ankara University’s prestigious Political Science School.

Ivan Tyutrin

Ivan Tyutrin is a politician and co-founder of the Free Russia Forum (FRF), a biannual conference held in Vilnius for Russia’s pro-democracy opposition. Through the FRF, Ivan has helped expose the abuses of Putin’s regime with projects like “PUTIN’S LIST,” a project to uncover the abuses and greed of the Russians holding up Putin’s regime and enriching themselves through corruption.

Ivan Tyutrin lives in Vilnius, where he continues to fight for Russia’s freedom. Since 2005, he has led the Tomsk regional department of the United Civil Front, a pro-democracy social movement founded by Garry Kasparov. In 2018, Ivan was elected to the Permanent Committee of the FRF.

Senator Leila De Lima

Senator of the Republic of the Philippines Human Rights Defender Prisoner of Conscience
(since February 24, 2017, under the current regime of President Rodrigo Duterte)

Senator Leila de Lima of the Philippines was appointed head of the National Human Rights Commission of the Philippines in 2008. While in this role, she investigated now-President Duterte’s involvement in extrajudicial executions during his time as Mayor of Davao City. In the 2016 general elections, de Lima won a seat in the Senate. After President Duterte took office, Senator de Lima criticized the increased number of killings of suspected drug offenders and opened a Senate Inquiry into the unlawful executions. Shortly after, allies of President Duterte accused her of accepting drug money and charged her without evidence. On July 18, 2019, the Philippine National Police filed sedition charges against her. If found guilty, she faces possible life in prison. She signed the letter through her attorney as she is currently imprisoned.

Leopoldo Lopez

Leopoldo Lopez is a democracy activist and an opposition leader in Venezuela. By openly challenging dictators like Chávez and Maduro, he faced persecution. Fake accusations barred him from running for office, and then were used to justify his arrest. He was sentenced to 13 years, of which he spent 3 in a military prison, and 2 under house arrest. During the 2019 uprising against Maduro’s regime, Lopez escaped house arrest and sought refuge in the Spanish Embassy, where he remained for over a year. In 2020, he escaped from Venezuela in disguise over the border into Colombia.

Leopoldo now lives in exile in Spain, but continues to advocate relentlessly for human rights and democracy in Venezuela.

Marina Nemat

Author

Marina Nemat is the author of the bestselling memoir Prisoner of Tehran, which has been translated into more than 30 languages. She was born in Iran in 1965 and was arrested at the age of 16 in 1982 for speaking out against the new Islamist government in her country. She spent 2 years, 2 months, and 12 days as a prisoner of conscience in the notorious Evin prison, where she was tortured and raped. She now lives in Canada and, in addition to writing and teaching, is an outspoken critic of the Iranian regime. She has spoken at Oxford University, Yale University, Stanford University, the University of Toronto, and for the UN Human Rights Council.

Maryam Namazie

Maryam Namazie is a British-Iranian activist, writer, and broadcaster who criticizes repressive Islamist movements and fights for women’s rights, secularism, and free expression. Her career began in Sudan, where she co-founded Human Rights Without Frontiers for Ethiopian refugees. When the Islamic Revolution came to Sudan, she was forced to escape. Her outspoken opposition to Islamic laws and traditions, such as stonings, drew the eye and ire of Iran; their government-controlled media featured an “”exposé”” of Maryam aimed at demonizing her, and in 2019 ran a TV program that labeled her “anti-God.” 

 

Recently, she defends her progressive and secular perspectives from her own TV program which is broadcast over satellite to bypass government censors and reach a wide audience in the Middle East. Namazie was awarded the 2016 International Secularism Prize from Comité Laïcité République and the 2017 Henry H. Zumach Freedom from Religious Fundamentalism Award.

 

Masih Alinejad

Masih Alinejad is an Iranian American journalist who was forced to flee Iran in 2009 after criticizing lawmakers and political figures, including former President Ahmadinejad. Since 2014, she has led various viral social media campaigns including My Stealthy Freedom to showcase liberating acts of defiance by women in Iran, like walking in public without a hijab. A tireless women’s rights and democracy advocate, Masih was the target of a planned kidnapping by Iranian intelligence while she was living in the US in 2021. 

Masih is a journalist, author, TV broadcaster, and human rights campaigner. As the founder of My Stealthy Freedom and author of the best-selling memoir The Wind in My Hair, she is the leading voice in the campaign against compulsory hijabs in Iran.

 

 

Meron Estefanos

Meron Estefanos is a human rights activist, journalist and radio presenter. She is also the co-founder of the International Commission on Eritrean Refugees and director of Eritrean Initiative on Eritrean Refugees in Stockholm, Sweden. For over the last 13  years, Ms. Estefanos was nominated and received several awards for her work. She is the co-author and contributor to a wide range of studies, books and academic publications on the smuggling and trafficking of human beings (STHB). 


Over the last ten years, Ms. Estefanos personally developed a unique network of testimonies and sources on STHB, with a particular focus on the condition of migrants, asylum seekers and refugees from the Horn of Africa to Europe. She has cooperated closely with a wide range of international institutions, universities, the European Union, the United Nations, humanitarian organisations, and governments. Meron was awarded the 2011 Dawit Isaak Prize, Sweden. She was nominated for the 2014 UNHCR Nansen Award by the US State Department Bureau of Population, Refugee, and Migration. In 2015 she was awarded “Earth Angel” ACAT Award, and named by The Guardian among the eight “heroes” of 2016.

Michel Hausmann

Theater Director, Writer & Producer - Co-Founder & Artistic Director of Miami New Drama

Michel Hausmann is a Venezuelan-born theater director, producer, and writer. He was the co-founder and Artistic Director of an award-winning theater company in Venezuela where he directed over a dozen productions, including Fiddler on the Roof, for which he came into conflict with the Venezuelan government, a vocal foe of Israel. Michel received a BA from Emerson College and an MFA in Theater Directing from Columbia University. He is a New York Theater Workshop 2050 Fellow, a Shubert Presidential fellow, an IRNE nominee, a Richard Rodgers Award finalist, and a two-time Knights Arts Challenge Award recipient.

Mohamed Soltan

Mohamed Soltan is a human rights advocate who in 2013, while covering a protest against the military coup in Egypt, was shot by a sniper. He was later arrested by Egyptian authorities, tortured in prison, and eventually began a hunger strike that lasted 489 days to protest his unjust imprisonment and the inhumane detention conditions. On May 30th, 2015, shortly after an Egyptian judge sentenced him to life in prison along with 37 others, the US government intervened at the highest levels and successfully facilitated his release to the United States. Mohamed is currently the President of The Freedom Initiative, a US-based non-partisan human rights organization that advocates for the freedom of prisoners wrongfully detained across the Middle East and North Africa.

Natalia Kaliada

Natalia Kaliada is an award-winning theatre-maker, writer, human rights diplomat, and Founding Artistic Director of Belarus Free Theatre (BFT), a Minsk-based underground theater that challenges censorship and oppression under Alexander Lukashenko. For demanding “freedom of artistic expression,” recognizing the marginalized of Belarus, and protesting Lukashenko’s sham win of the 2010 election, Natalia had to be smuggled out of the country. She currently lives in the UK.

Recently, Natalia Kaliada campaigns for economic sanctions against Lukashenko and other officials who are responsible for repressing the Belarusian people. In Minsk, BFT continues their work underground. Awards include the Human Rights Prize of the French Republic, the Atlantic Council Award, the Vaclav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent, the Magnitsky Prize for Courage Under Fire, and The Stage International Award.

Natallia Radzina

Natallia Radzina is living in exile from Belarus because of her role in exposing human rights violations and corruption in the country. She is the editor-in-chief of pro-opposition news website Charter 97, which publishes articles critical of Belarusian President Aleksander Lukashenko. In 2010, following the post-election opposition protests in Minsk, members of the KGB stormed Natallia’s office and fraudulently charged her with “participating in an unsanctioned rally.” Facing up to 15 years in prison, she fled to Moscow, where she hid for four months before seeking asylum in Lithuania.

Natallia continues to cover wrongdoing in Belarus at Charter 97. In November 2011, the Committee to Protect Journalists awarded her with its International Press Freedom Award, “an annual recognition of courageous journalism.”

Omar Alshogre

Omar Alshogre is a Syrian public speaker, detention survivor, and Georgetown University student who currently lives in D.C. Omar fled Syria at the age of 20 after being arrested and imprisoned for participating in rallies and demonstrations against the Syrian regime. With the help of his mother, Omar was finally smuggled from prison at the age of 20. From his new home, Omar currently engages in raising awareness of the situation in Syria. 

Omar leads the Syrian Emergency Task Force’s efforts to advocate for the liberation of detainees as the Director of Detainees Affairs. Omar has met with the White House, Holocaust Museum, multiple members of Congress, HRW, NYT, Washington Post, and gave lectures at Brown, Princeton, and other American universities during his time in the United States. He is also a key witness to every national prosecution effort to hold the Assad regime accountable for War Crimes and will be playing an important role alongside Caesar as a key witness for future US national prosecution efforts of the Assad regime where American citizens have been executed and others remain detained by the regime. 

Pedro Mario Burelli

Pedro Mario Burelli is a Venezuelan national, businessman, and former Executive Board Member of Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA). His pro-business stance clashed with former president Hugo Chávez and current president Nicolás Maduro. Maduro classified Pedro as an extremist and traitor, often evoking his name in fictitious conspiracy theories and eventually issuing a warrant for his arrest.

Pedro has been an outspoken critic of both regimes and their allegiance to Russian and Cuban oil interests, which contributed to the collapse of Venezuela’s economy. He is the founder and managing director of B+V Advisors, a financial advisory firm focusing on capital raising and M&A in Russia, Spain, and Latin America.

Roya Mahboob

Roya is a serial entrepreneur and one of the first female CEOs in her home country, Afghanistan. As CEO of Digital Citizens Fund, Bright Citizen (coffee and tea) and EdyEdy, Roya’s work is focused on digital literacy to bridge the gap between education and the job markets. Digital Citizens Fund has 15,000 graduates from its 13 digital classrooms and has incubated ten female startups. Roya is currently in development with the Afghan government to build STEM schools in Afghanistan to unlock new opportunities for the inclusion of female entrepreneurs in hard to reach places using airspace and blockchain technology. Roya is also the champion and coach of the world renowned Afghan Girls Robotics Team, the Afghan Dreamers, who are inspiring a nation to see the potential of girls differently.

Roya was named as one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2013, and received the 2014 Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award, The Advancement of Gender Equality through Education Award, Young Leader of World Economic Forum, Wonder women, Visionary award, the prestigious Presidential Leadership Scholarship and is a founding Leader of The NewNow, a group of rising global leaders tackling global challenges.

Silvia Buendía

Silvia Buendía is an Ecuadorian lawyer, TV host, and feminist activist who campaigned for legalizing gay marriage in Ecuador. When she criticized President Correa for his opposition to LGBT and women’s rights, she was harassed by pro-Correa internet trolls. Despite the pressure, her lifelong efforts paid off in 2019 when Ecuador legalized gay marriage. Her career began as a columnist at El Telégrafo before she became a host for the TV program Así Somos and debated from the perspective of the progressive left. Silvia was a spokesperson for the LGBTI Diversity Ecuador Network and member of Ruptura 25, a left-wing movement founded on the 25th anniversary of Ecuador’s transition from military triumvirate to constitutional, civilian-ruled democracy.

Silvia Buendía currently lives and works in Guayaquil, Ecuador. In 2013, she was a candidate for the Ecuadorian legislative elections.

 

Xavier Bonilla

Xavier Bonilla, known by his pen name “Bonil,” is an Ecuadorian cartoonist who works for El Universo, Ecuador’s major national newspaper. His drawings defend freedom of expression and spotlight abuses of power by politicians in Ecuador and Latin America. Former President of Ecuador Rafael Correa levied several attacks and insults against Bonil on his weekly television program, and used the governmental institutions he controlled to impose sanctions and fines on Bonil and the newspaper for $95,000. Bonil was then harassed and defamed by pro-Correa internet trolls.

Xavier Bonilla continues to expose abuses of power and advocate for free expression, winning several awards for his work. He received a Mention of Excellence at the United Nations and was nominated for the 2015 Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Award.

Zineb El Rhazoui

Zineb El Rhazoui is a Moroccan-French journalist and human rights activist. As a former columnist for the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, she received thousands of death threats from ISIS. Many fanatics followed suit and flooded social media and the internet with her personal information, pictures of her family, live location, and offered a monetary reward to harm her. 

She is the founder of several organizations advocating for democracy, secularism, free speech, and women’s rights. In Morocco, she was arrested three times for protesting the government, which in 2010 also banned and closed the weekly paper Le Journal Hebdomadaire where she worked. She is the author of the book Destroy Islamic Fascism and in 2019 was awarded the “”Prix du public Simone Veil” at the Trophées #ellesdeFrance.

Aaro Berhane

Lorem Ipsum is simply dummy text of the printing and typesetting industry. Lorem Ipsum has been the industry’s standard dummy text ever since the 1500s, when an unknown printer took a galley of type and scrambled it to make a type specimen book. It has survived not only five centuries, but also the leap into electronic typesetting, remaining essentially unchanged. It was popularised in the 1960s with the release of Letraset sheets containing Lorem Ipsum passages, and more recently with desktop publishing software like Aldus PageMaker including versions of Lorem Ipsum.

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal

Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal was detained for participating in anti-junta protests in Thailand and became internationally recognized for refusing to prostrate in front of a statue of King Rama V. He was later stripped of his position as Student Council President of Chulalongkorn University after not swearing an oath in front of the statue during a university ceremony. A court later ruled in Netiwit’s favor against the university, so he was able to run and win election as president of the student union. He is also Thailand’s first conscientious objector of mandatory conscription and was banned from serving on the board of Amnesty International Thailand by the Interior Ministry. Netiwit is a Thai student activist fighting for democracy in Thailand, the founder of a student-run press, the author of five books, and a translator.

Rushan Abbas

Rushan is a Uyghur activist who co-organized pro-democracy protests against the Chinese government oppression at Xinjiang University in 1985 and 1988. She has continued her work from the United States where she uncovers abuses against Uyghurs in China and brings their suffering to light. She is the founder of Campaign for Uyghurs, a human rights and democracy advocacy group.

Nury Turkel

Nury Turkel, a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute specializing in US foreign policy and national security issues, digital authoritarianism, forced labor, supply chain risk, global justice enforcement, human rights, and religious freedom in China. As an attorney, Turkel specializes in international corporate compliance relating to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and other anti-corruption standards. In May 2020, Turkel was appointed by Congress as a Commissioner to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). He has testified before Congress, including most recently before the Congressional-Executive Commission on China in October 2019, speaking about Uyghur internment camps and advocating a legislative response to China’s atrocities.
 
Turkel was born in a re-education camp at the height of China’s tumultuous Cultural Revolution and spent the first several months of his life in detention with his mother. He has been a human rights advocate for the Uyghur people in China for more than two decades. Turkel currently serves as the Chairman of the Board for the Uyghur Human Rights Project, which he co-founded in 2003. He has also served as the president of the Uyghur American Association. In addition, Turkel is a Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. His policy-oriented commentary has been published in outlets including the Foreign Affairs, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, TIME Magazine, Newsweek, and Foreign Policy.  In 2020, he was included in TIME Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World list.

Mai Khôi

Mai Khôi is an award-winning Vietnamese singer, composer, and activist whose musical work criticizes censorship and authoritarianism in Vietnam. After she tried to enter politics, she was subject to persecution and intimidation, police raids of her concerts, the confiscation of her records, unlawful detainment, and eviction threats. She fled Hanoi for the US. Mai Khôi is currently an artist in residency at City Of Asylum Pittsburgh. She was awarded the Václav Havel Prize for Creative Dissent by the Human Rights Foundation.

Mu Sochua

Mu Sochua is a Cambodian politician and activist for human rights, free elections, and democratic reform in Southeast Asia. Her parents were killed by the genocidal Khmer Rouge, and at 18 years old she was forced to flee to the US. Returning to Cambodia 18 years later, Sochua led efforts to stop human trafficking, domestic violence, and child abuse. In 1998 she won a seat to the parliament, becoming the first Minister of Women and Veterans’ Affairs. Despite her successes, Mu stepped down in protest of the rise of Prime Minister Hun Sen, now in power for 35 years. She became Vice President of the CNRP, Cambodia’s pro-democracy opposition party, and was driven into exile after the party was dissolved by the corrupt judiciary. Mu Sochua, Sam Rainsy, Eng Chhay Eang, and other senior leaders of CNRP continue to speak out against PM Hun Sen and advocate for a democratic Cambodia.

Omer Kanat

Omer Kanat is a Uyghur journalist and activist. From 1999 to 2009 Mr. Kanat was the Senior Editor of Radio Free Asia’s Uyghur Service. He is the Chairman of the Executive Committee of the World Uyghur Congress and the Executive Director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project (UHRP), a human rights research and advocacy organization based in Washington, DC.

Nathan Law

Nathan Law is a young Hong Kong activist, currently in exile and based in London. During the Umbrella Movement in 2014, Nathan was one of the five representatives who took part in the dialogue with the government, debating political reform. Upholding non-violent civic actions, Nathan, Joshua Wong and other student leaders founded Demosistō in 2016 and ran for the Legislative Council election. Nathan was elected with 50,818 votes in the Hong Kong Island constituency and became the youngest Legislative Councilor in history. Yet his seat was overturned in July 2017 following Beijing’s constitutional reinterpretation, despite international criticism. Nathan was later jailed for his participation in the Umbrella Movement. The persecution sparked global concern over Beijing’s crackdown on human rights and democratic movement in Hong Kong. In 2018, Nathan and his fellow student activists Joshua Wong and Alex Chow are nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by US congressmen and British parliament members. Due to the risk imposed by the draconian National Security Law, Nathan left Hong Kong and continues to speak up for Hong Kong people on the international level. In 2020, he was listed as one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME.

Yeonmi Park

Yeonmi Park fled North Korea in 2007 at just 13 years old. She was sold into sex slavery in China, but escaped with her mother through the Gobi Desert into Mongolia. She eventually secured asylum in South Korea, then moved to the United States in 2014. Yeonmi is a human rights activist and uses her platform to warn about the dangers of authoritarianism. Her memoir In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom is an account of her harrowing escape.

Elfidar Iltebir

Elfidar was born in Urumchi and grew up in Istanbul, Turkey until migrating to the U.S. in 2000. She has a BA in Marketing from George Mason and over twenty years of marketing and project management experience. She has taught the Uyghur language to U.S. government employees and as the daughter of a prominent Uyghur writer and journalist, is an active member of the Uyghur community and an outspoken human rights activist. She is currently a Structure Analyst and fluent in English, Uyghur and Turkish.

Sam Rainsy

Sam Rainsy is the exiled founder and acting leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the largest pro-democracy opposition party in post-communist Cambodia, which scored 45% in both 2013 national and 2017 local elections. Sam Rainsy was forced out of the country in 2015 and the opposition was barred by the government-controlled supreme court in 2017. With no opposition in the 2018 national elections, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party seized all 125 seats. Sam Rainsy lives in exile in France and continues to be targeted by the CPP and Prime Minister Hun Sen. He has received sentences totaling 47 years in prison and as recently as March 2021 was sentenced to 25 years in prison on unsubstantiated charges that he plotted to overthrow the government.

Wai Hnin Pwint Thon

Wai Hnin Pwint Thon is a Burmese human rights activist, fighting for the freedoms of political prisoners and their families. Her father has been imprisoned for his political advocacy leading up to the Saffron Revolution, as well as his continuous involvement in the fight for human rights in Burma. Throughout her life, Wai Hnin has worked to raise awareness about the plights of political prisoners and detainees, and fought for democracy and individual rights in Burma. She is a Senior Advocacy Officer at Burma Campaign UK, an organization working for human rights and democracy in Burma, and has worked with multiple other organizations, such as Amnesty International.

Wong Chen

Wong Chen is a Member of the Parliament of Malaysia and rose to prominence as one of the first politicians to speak out against 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a corruption scandal involving former Prime Minister Najib Razak and the embezzlement of government funds. In July 2020, Razak was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison, the first time Malaysia’s courts had convicted a former PM. Wong Chen is a member of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and serves as its Investment and Trade Chairman.

Eng Chhai Eang

Eng Chhai Eang is a former Cambodian politician whose pro-democracy opposition party, CNRP, was outlawed in Cambodia by the ruling party, CPP, in 2017. After fleeing the country because of this decision, his passport was revoked in violation of the Cambodian constitution. He lives abroad in exile to this day. Despite the court warrants issued for his arrest in Cambodia, Eng is trying to revalidate his passport and return to the country to stand trial for the fraudulent charges leveled against him. So far, the Cambodian Embassy in Washington, DC refuses, saying they work with all Cambodians—with the exception of “illegal individuals.”

Me Me Khant

Me Me Khant is a poet and activist from Burma currently pursuing Master’s in International Policy at Stanford University and a Knight-Hennessy Scholar. She began organizing as a Student Union leader while she was a student at the University of Information Technology in Yangon. Since the coup on February 1st , she has been rallying the Burmese diasporas in coordinated global protests and online campaigns and demonstrations, in collaboration with resistance groups on the ground. As a poet, her creative work touches on sociopolitical issues in Burma, primarily on women’s rights, peace and reconciliation, and resistance poetry. Her work has appeared in Vantage Point magazine, Thamaga Journal, Mizzima Journal and TV. She has also published two poetry collections. She currently writes and organizes from the San Francisco Bay Area and serves as the Executive Director and Co-Founder of Students for Free Burma (SFB).

Leila De Lima

After her election to the Senate of the Phillipines in 2016, Senator Leila de Lima opened an inquiry into President Rodrigo Duterte’s use of extrajudicial executions for more than 20,000 drug offenders while he was Mayor of Davao City. In retaliation, he falsely accused her of using drug money for her campaign––a charge she has been imprisoned for since 2017. Leila was appointed head of the National Human Rights Commission of the Philippines in 2008, Justice Secretary in 2010, and elected as a senator in 2016. She signed the letter through her attorney as she is currently imprisoned.

Zhang Zhang

Zhang Zhang is a philanthropist and acclaimed violinist from Beijing who became the youngest violinist in the Bangkok Symphony Orchestra at age 11. Her parents fled to Thailand and started the orchestra, the first professional philharmonic in the country, after losing everything in Mao’s Cultural Revolution when they were interned at labor camps. In 2006, Zhang created ZhangomusiQ, a non-governmental organization that promotes humanitarian efforts through “musical diplomacy.” Zhang continues her philanthropy in places such as Moscow, Tokyo, Rome, and Brussels. She was the first Chinese musician to play in Monte Carlo’s renowned Orchestre Philharmonique and was awarded the highest diploma of the Lausanne Conservatoire in Switzerland.

Dmitri Gudkov

Dmitry Gudkov is a Russian politician and opposition member against Putin’s regime. In 2012, he was one of the leaders of the protest movement against Putin’s reelection. Dmitry and his father, also a politician, were expelled from their political party A Just Russia in 2013 for their activism. Gudkov continued to campaign for a democratic Russia, and in June of 2021 was detained in Moscow on previously unannounced debt-related charges. He fled Russia for Ukraine out of fear that the additional politically-motivated charges would be levied against him.

Michel Hausmann

Michel Hausmann is a Venezuelan-born theater director, producer, and writer whose plays were targeted by Hugo Chávez’s anti-Semitic regime. Many ensembles and production companies were afraid to affiliate with Michel’s “Jewish” plays because they feared losing government funding; just two weeks before his 2009 production of Fiddler on the Roof, the play’s symphony orchestra backed out. Michel was undeterred, so he ironically performed the play on a Caracas rooftop. In 2010, his production of Jesus Christ Superstar was teargassed by unidentified attackers.

Michel Hausmann is now the artistic director of Miami New Drama, a New York Theater Workshop 2050 Fellow, a Shubert Presidential fellow, an IRNE nominee, a Richard Rodgers Award finalist, and a two-time Knights Arts Challenge Award recipient.

Marina Nemat

Marina Nemat is an author and critic of the Iranian regime. In 1982, at the age of 16, she spoke out against the Islamic Revolution in Iran and was arrested. She spent two years, two months, and 12 days as a prisoner of conscience at Evin prison, where she was tortured and sentenced to death. She narrowly secured a commutation and escaped to Canada. Her bestselling memoir Prisoner of Tehran is an account of her time at Evin.

 

Marina teaches memoir writing at the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies. She continues to speak to schools, libraries, and other associations about her experiences. In December 2007, Marina was awarded the first Human Dignity Prize. In 2010, she published After Tehran: A Life Reclaimed.

 

Ilhan Tanir

Ilhan Tanir is a Washington, DC-based journalist who covers US-Turkish relations and was censored by the Turkish government for advocating for freedom of the press in Turkey. He is chief of the English desk at Ahval, a website founded in 2017 to counter media bans and censorship in Turkey. In 2018, when the website was reportedly receiving 230,000 views per day, the Turkish government blocked access to the website for users in the country. 

Ilhan is a graduate of the Political Science School at Ankara University and received his master’s from George Mason University. Besides writing about domestic politics in Turkey, Ilhan reports on issues related to Eurasia and the Middle East. He has reported several times on Syria since their civil war began in 2011.