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US Spotlights Plight of Female Political Prisoners Around World

  • Margaret Besheer

Twenty years ago in Beijing, women leaders met to lay out a road map for advancing gender equality and empowering women. The U.S. government is marking the anniversary this month by highlighting the cases of 20 female political prisoners from 13 countries in a social media campaign called "Free the 20."

Seventy-one-year old Chinese journalist Gao Yu is one of those prisoners. She was arrested in April and sentenced to seven years behind bars for “leaking state secrets overseas."

Another is Iranian student activist Bahareh Hedayat, 34. She is serving a 10-year sentence in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison on charges including “giving interviews to foreign media” and insulting Iran’s leaders.

In North Korea, there are tens of thousands of political prisoners; many are women. Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said that had the Free the 20 campaign named any of those held in North Korea, her life would have been put in danger.

“We decided to just create a composite for North Korea, sort of standing for all the women prisoners who are there, and indeed all the political prisoners who are stuck behind bars,” Power said.

The ambassador said it's important that these women are not forgotten.

“These are real individuals; these are real heroes; these are people who have so much to contribute to their communities, and they should be empowered, not imprisoned,” Power said.

Each day, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations is posting a photo of another of the women prisoners. The entire group of 20 portraits will be there when world leaders start arriving later this month for the annual U.N. meetings.

“Certainly, there will be nobody who comes to New York who walks on First Avenue who won’t have the opportunity to see the 20 in the window, and we're using social media and getting a lot of support also from Congress," Power said.

She said Washington would continue to raise human rights issues and the fates of these prisoners through many channels, including during private meetings with leaders this month.

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