FreeThe20 Women Political Prisoners and Prisoners of Concern Campaign Launch

Special Briefing
Samantha Power
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations 
Washington, DC
September 1, 2015

MR TONER: Wow, full house, terrific. I welcome everyone. Happy Tuesday. Very delighted to have the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power here to launch the Free the 20 campaign to draw attention to the plight of women political prisoners and other prisoners of concern. Throughout September, the department will highlight 20 individual cases of women prisoners from around the world who are unjustly imprisoned, featuring one case per business day. And these women will be featured on social media accounts for Ambassador Power and the U.S. Mission to the UN and will be profiled on

So without further ado, Ambassador.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Thank you. Good afternoon. Twenty years ago, 189 governments and approximately 30,000 nongovernmental organizations – activists from around the globe convened in Beijing for a world conference to advance gender equality and women’s rights. The U.S. delegation was led by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, who set the tone not only for the conference, but also for a generation of advocacy on women’s rights when she declared that, “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” After two weeks of intense negotiations, the 189 countries adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, an ambitious roadmap for empowering women and promoting women and girls’ human rights everywhere.

On September 27th, 20 years after the Beijing Declaration, nations from around the world will take part in another high-level conference, this time at the United Nations in New York, with the aim of agreeing upon a new set of concrete commitments to advance women’s rights for the next 20 years. The discussion will look both at the areas where the world has made meaningful progress and those where we have not. Like Beijing, the conference will be ambitious in its breadth and aims to include a diverse set of voices.

But there will be some women whose critically important voices will be missing from the dialogue around the Beijing+20 conference. Voices that would add a lot to discussions not only about advancing women’s rights, but all human rights. Women who have worked to promote freedom of expression and assembly; to ensure people’s right to basic health care and education; and to defend children, refugees, and other vulnerable members of our societies. I am talking about the voices of women political prisoners and other prisoners of concern.

Today, we are here to launch a campaign to recognize 20 of those women – women who should be advocating for women’s empowerment and part of the discussions around the Conference in New York in three weeks, rather than being behind bars. We are calling them the Beijing+20 twenty. And every weekday leading up to the Beijing +20 conference, we are going to share the story of one of these women in greater detail. Their names. Who they are. Where they are from. Why they have been unjustly locked up. And the governments that are depriving them of their freedom. Governments that will be sending delegations to the Beijing+20 conference in New York.

These are just twenty out of the many women who are being deprived of their freedom and the right to participate in the Beijing+20 conference. In naming these women, we are 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 on the basis of the rights that they are fighting for. Free these 20 women and free the countless women and girls like them behind bars, because these 20 women only represent a tiny fraction of the women currently being unjustly imprisoned. And the governments detaining them are just a handful of the governments around the world that are locking up women for exercising their fundamental freedoms.

In naming these women, we are also seeking to send a message to the 20 prisoners and their families, and to others like them: We have not forgotten about you. We will keep pressing for your governments to free you. We will continue to remind people of what is lost when you are excluded not only from the conversations like the one coming up in New York, but from your communities and your societies. We will insist on reminding the world how much we lose when your voices are silenced – today and every day that you are behind bars.

The first of the 20 is Wang Yu, a 44-year-old prisoner in the country where the historic 1995 Beijing Conference was held: China. 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 had been beaten – convicted to two-and-a-half years in prison for what was called “intentional assault.” She later told a reporter, “After my miscarriage of justice… I wanted to improve China's human rights system.”

Wang did that by taking on the cases of clients who other lawyers feared to represent, such as Ilham Tohti, a prominent Uighur scholar eventually sentenced to life in prison; Cao Shunli, a woman human rights activist who died in March 2014 after reportedly being denied medical treatment while in detention; and those who are known as the “Five Feminists” – young women who were detained in advance of International Women’s Day in March of this year for planning a campaign against sexual harassment. For her work, Wang has been harassed, threatened, and smeared in the state-run media. On July 9th, 2015, Wang herself was detained. So was her husband, along with their 16-year-old son. Wang and her husband remain in prison, where they have been denied regular access to a lawyer in custody and have not yet been charged. Their son was released, but is under constant surveillance and has been barred from leaving the country. When at least 159 Chinese lawyers and activists signed a petition calling for Wang’s release, many of them were detained as well.

Responding to attacks against her in the state-run press, Wang once wrote, “I believe that during this time of enlightenment and rapid development of the internet…any shameful attempt to smear me is doomed to fail.” She said, “The truth cannot be long hidden.” In raising Wang’s case today and others like it in the days to come, we aim to help her and others expose some of that truth. Let me repeat her name – it is Wang Yu.

We will continue to repeat Wang Yu’s name, and that of other women like her, over the coming days. Women like the brave Azeri journalist Khadija Ismayilova – another one of the 20 – who just today was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison. To the media we urge: write about these cases. To members of these women’s communities and to our own communities, we urge: take up their cases as your own, and demand their release. And to the governments imprisoning these twenty individuals we urge: if you want to empower women, start by releasing these women. Don’t deprive your societies and the world of these women’s voices.

Thank you. And I will now take a few questions.

QUESTION: I’ve got one logistical one and a technical one, and then a more substantive one. The North Korean prisoner, is that a composite or is – you have actually someone in mind; you just don’t want to endanger even more by naming her? That’s the technical question.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Okay. I’ll take all your questions and then respond.

QUESTION: And then the other one is – you’ve got three from Ethiopia on here, three from China. I’m curious – the national security advisor was just in China. The Chinese president is making a state visit here. And the President, our President, was just in Ethiopia, where he made some comments praising its democracy. I’m just wondering if you see a discord there.

And then lastly, are there no more political – women political prisoners in Cuba? Or why no one from Cuba? Those are – that’s it.


QUESTION: That’s it.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Okay. First on DPRK, I will say that there are more than 100,000 political prisoners in North Korea that we know about, and the conditions in the network of prisons in North Korea are unspeakable, the risk to any specific individual in those prisons excessive. And so all things considered, the judgment was made, number one, there are so many political prisoners that singling any one woman out – or girl out for that matter – in a way wouldn’t reflect the scope and the scale of the challenge; and two, again, that the risk could be substantial to that individual.

QUESTION: So it’s a composite.

AMBASSDOR POWER: It’s a composite.

On the second question regarding China and Ethiopia, I think in fact what this campaign, which is an Administration-wide campaign that everyone in this Administration is very enthusiastic about and very sincerely committed to, really reflects the centrality of human rights to our relationship with these countries. We, with both China and Ethiopia, and I see this every day at the United Nations, have incredibly productive and important business that we do together around collective security challenges and around a whole set of shared interests.

At the same time, the human rights issues in countries, regardless of who they are and regardless of how productively we work with them in other realms, need to be raised. And they are – as President Obama said on his trip to Ethiopia, the full potential of Ethiopia will not be unleashed and unlocked until journalists are able to report on what’s going in the country freely and opposition – credible opposition candidates are able to participate in elections. I mean, he said that on his trip and Ambassador Rice’s trip – National Security Advisor Rice’s trip to China in advance of the Xi visit had human rights as one of the key agenda items. So this is very much in keeping with Administration-wide commitments and the tradition of raising these issues repeatedly, seeking outcomes that, as this poster behind me reflects, outcomes that we have not yet achieved and so we will keep raising until we see progress in these areas – significant progress.

In terms of any specific country, I mean, you could – there are a lot of political prisoners and a lot of women political prisoners around the world. This is – we are doing one prisoner per day, again, for representing one year between now and Beijing in 1995. The specific inclusion of several from one country is no specific sign of anything, nor is the exclusion from another. You’ll see a pretty diverse range of governments represented here. And all I would say is that we were looking for representative prisoner cases. We did a lot of consultation to select this group. Oftentimes, that was with NGOs as well as with our own embassies and people who are a little closer to where these individuals are being held. In some cases, we engaged via our embassies or NGOs with the families of people that we were considering profiling, and some were not enthusiastic about being profiled and that was a very, of course, a dispositive factor.

QUESTION: Okay. But it’s not the case that the Administration does not believe there are any --

AMBASSADOR POWER: We are not pulling our punches on any particular country.


MR TONER: Go ahead, Arshad.

QUESTION: Did National Security Advisor Rice raise the case of Wang Yu or of any other specific political prisoners in China on her last trip? And do you expect the President to raise Wang Yu or any other specific individuals when he meets with President Xi next – or later this month?

And then secondly, if those kinds of cases are not raised at the very highest level, why should the Chinese or any other government take your concerns seriously?

AMBASSADOR POWER: Thank you. I’m not in a position here to disclose private diplomatic communications that Ambassador Rice has had just over the course of the last week, and she’s gone from China to Pakistan, is now up in the Arctic, so I also haven’t had a chance to speak with her. But as I said earlier, human rights was a key, core issue on the trip – on her trip, and it is going to be a key, core issue when President Xi visits Washington. I can, again, not at this point speak to what our plans are vis-a-vis the visit. We’re working a lot of elements through, even as we speak. But it has been the practice in any prior trip, certainly that I’ve had any insight into, that the President has raised a set of specific cases, and I would expect that to be the case on this trip as well.

In terms of who will make it onto the list, these are extremely important cases as is evinced here by the, again, the entire national security apparatus standing behind this list of prisoners. So I would have every expectation that these individuals would be on the list, but again, can’t be a prophet here at this point.

MR TONER: Said, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. Yeah, thank you. Are we likely to see a list of Palestinian women present on this – added to this list? I mean, some have languished for decades in Israeli prison, even giving childbirth while in prison. There is one in particular, a Palestinian legislator, Khalida Jarrar, who has been imprisoned for defying Israeli orders to be deported to Jericho from Ramallah. Could you comment on that?

AMBASSADOR POWER: I am not familiar, again, with the specifics of the case so I can’t comment on that. I would just say, again, we are – look, this list is a representative list, not an exhaustive list. I also want to stress that this is not the sum total of our efforts on political prisoners around the world by any means. This is a group of women prisoners; it’s not by any means close to a complete list of women prisoners. So it would be very misleading to think that somehow this is the – this is the sum total of our bilateral efforts or even our multilateral efforts to secure either more humane treatment or the release of particular political prisoners.

QUESTION: So this does not represent the dismissal of the fact that there are Palestinian women in Israeli prisons today?

AMBASSADOR POWER: Again, I’d want to speak to the facts of a specific case, which I’m not in a position to do.

MR TONER: Last question. Go ahead.

QUESTION: As you said, Ambassador, there are many political prisoners, and I’m just intrigued to know what the criteria that you chose to profile 20. I mean, you mentioned or alluded to say that it was recommend – a recommendation from the embassy or the families, et cetera. And are these all political prisoners held by governments, and therefore you’re calling on governments? And what about the women who are held by militias or armed groups like, for example, Razan Zaitouneh, who’s a very famous Syrian activist?

AMBASSADOR POWER: Again, just to underscore, we have lots of different venues and vehicles for raising a whole series of cases that are not reflected by the image behind me and that will not be reflected by the specifics associated with this Beijing+20 twenty. So whether that’s male political prisoners, where it’s – whether it’s a whole host of other women political prisoners, whether it’s prisoners who are in the hands of militia or terrorist groups and so forth, we’re raising those on a daily basis in different channels trying to secure release. This is an effort to lift up in a way the welfare of a – of basically the whole community of political prisoners by choosing 20 over the course of this 20-day period. So it’s not intended to be exclusionary; it’s intended, again, to be representative, illustrative, and of course, it’s intended to focus attention on these very specific cases.

In terms of your very good and fair question about sort of the selection process and so forth, I mean, as you’ll see as we roll out each of the cases each day, every prisoner that we have chosen to profile in this 20-day campaign has a specific story, and we wanted to lift up a range of different profiles of political prisoners. You might ask, well, why have a few from one country? Why not have 20 countries represented? If, again, the facts of a particular case, if the family was enthusiastic or if NGOs thought that there was actually potentially a chance to secure release by raising up the profile, we didn’t want to let the fact that several other – a couple other prisoners from that country were on the list disqualify somebody.

So it was sort of more of an art than a science, I would say, but we felt that this together was a strong list of individuals who would both reflect their own experiences and the tremendous work that women are doing all around the world in civil society, in opposition, in media, in their own communities, in health care, in lawyering, you name it, but we also thought this would be a good representative group for those who aren’t actually depicted in the campaign itself.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR TONER: Thank you so much, Ambassador. We appreciate it.

AMBASSADOR POWER: Okay. Thank you, Mark. Thanks again.