Highlighting "the plight of women political prisoners and other prisoners of concern" is the focus of the "Free the 20" campaign launched Tuesday in Washington by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
The cases of 20 prisoners from around the world will be profiled throughout the month to call attention to critical voices that Power said would be missing from discussion surrounding the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration — a road map for the promotion of women's rights, signed by 189 nations — on September 27.
Power said that on each day leading up to the anniversary, "we are going to share their names, who they are, where they are from, why they’ve been unjustly locked up and the governments that are depriving them of their freedom — governments that will be sending delegations to New York” for a conference aimed at setting a women's rights agenda for the next 20 years.
“The first one is Wang Yu, a 44-year-old prisoner in the country where the historic 1995 Beijing conference was held: China," Power said at the State Department. "A commercial lawyer by training, Wang’s activism was sparked in 2008 when employees at a train station refused to let her board a train with her ticket. After demanding the right to board, Wang was assaulted by several men, and then even though she was the one who was beaten, she was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for what was called 'intentional assault.' "
Wang told a reporter after the incident that she wanted to improve China’s human rights system, Power said. “Wang did that by taking on the cases of clients whom other lawyers feared to represent, such as Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur scholar eventually sentenced to life in prison.”
“For her work, Wang has been harassed, threatened and smeared in the state-run media," the ambassador said. "On July 9th, Wang was detained; so was her husband and their 16 year-old son. Wang and her husband remain in prison, where they’ve been denied access to a lawyer in custody and have not yet been charged. Their son was released but is in constant surveillance and has been barred from leaving the country.”
China and Ethiopia have the greatest number of names on Power's list, with three for each country.
The ambassador did not say whether national security adviser Susan Rice, on her recent visit to China, raised the case of Wang Yu or of any other political prisoners in China.
Asked about President Barack Obama's praise for Ethiopia's democracy during a recent visit, Power said the United States does have shared interests with Ethiopia, but human rights issues need to be raised at all times, regardless of the relationship.
Some of the prisoners, like those in North Korea, were neither named nor unidentified in the group of 20 pictures. Power pointed out that given that there are more than 100,000 political prisoners in North Korea, singling any one woman out would not reflect the scale of the challenge, and could be a substantial risk to that individual as well.
In showing and naming the other women, Power insisted she was "sending a message to their governments and others like them: If you want to empower women, don’t imprison them on the basis of their views or the rights they are fighting for.”