When the opposition activist Alexei Navalny returned to Russia in January despite having been poisoned there, many asked, “Why?” He knew he would be arrested and was soon sentenced to more than two years in prison. Why would he put himself in that position?
Navalny showed a rare kind of determination and bravery—rare, but not unique. If we look around the world, we see courageous people in other contexts taking similar risks. Such less globally known dissidents deserve our attention too.
These “other Navalnys” each have distinct stories. Some have political ambitions. Others focus on helping victims of oppression or they push for human-rights reforms. Some may start in activism and end up seeking high office. But what all these dissidents share is a singular dedication to their causes—a devotion that leaves us in awe.
• Ilham Tohti. China has many living heroes. Among them is Tohti, an ethnic Uyghur economist and critic of the government. In the face of the authorities’ abuses and discrimination against the Uyghur population in the Xinjiang region, Tohti has been a voice of reason and decency. He offered practical solutions to the economic discrimination against Uyghurs and spoke of the need for an independent legal system to tackle state abuses.
Tohti urged peaceful debate among students, scholars and the wider population. He was the kind of peaceful reformer whom the authorities should have embraced, given their oft-stated fears of unrest by radicals in the region. But in 2014, they sentenced Tohti to life in prison on bogus charges of “separatism” after an absurdly unfair trial.
Tohti turned out to be a canary in the coal mine for Xinjiang. In the years after his sentencing, the Chinese government intensified its repression in the region, arbitrarily detaining 1 million Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims in “re-education camps” and expanding its automated mass surveillance systems there to dark extremes.
The Chinese government wants the world to forget Tohti. That hasn’t happened. The European Parliament awarded him its prestigious Sakharov Prize in 2019, and the Uyghur diaspora has kept Tohti and China’s abuses in the global eye.
• Ahmed Mansoor. A prominent human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates, Mansoor was sentenced to 10 years in prison in 2018 on charges entirely related to his statements on fundamental rights. Yes: a decade in prison for nothing more than telling the truth.
As if even the UAE authorities realized how embarrassing it was, Mansoor’s trial and appeal were held behind closed doors. The government refused to make public the charge sheet and court rulings.
The case recalls a line from Orwell’s 1984: “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four.” Insisting on simple facts takes courage in places when repressive authorities seem aware of Orwell’s next line: “If that is granted, all else follows.”
As Khalid Ibrahim, executive director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights, has said, “Ahmed Mansoor knew he risked prison when he devoted himself to protesting human rights violations in his country and the wider region, yet he still did so with courage and dedication. That is why UAE authorities have punished him so harshly.”
• Sônia Guajajara. The Brazilian activist has become a powerful force in the cause of indigenous and environmental rights, strongly opposing the government of the populist Jair Bolsonaro for its disastrous policies, which have contributed to rapid destruction of the Amazon.
Some might not liken a dissident in Russia, China or the UAE to one in a more democratic country like Brazil. But environmental activism, including on indigenous land-rights issues, is incredibly dangerous there. More than 300 people have been killed in Brazil in the past decade in conflicts over the use of land and resources in Amazonian states, many of them murdered by those involved in illegal deforestation, according to the Pastoral Land Commission, a nonprofit organization that aids victims.
Born in a rainforest village of the Guajajara people, she became the first indigenous person in Brazil to run for a federal executive office, seeking the position of vice president. She surely knows the grave risks she faces after the killings of activists from her own ethnic group. Yet she continues to speak out, specifically against the violent criminal networks behind such murders.
• Bobi Wine. The Ugandan musician and opposition leader Robert Kyagulanyi, better known by his stage name Bobi Wine, had the audacity to challenge the five-term president, Yoweri Museveni, for the country’s top post—even though Museveni holds all the levers of state violence and his henchmen aren’t afraid to use them.
Wine’s life story almost begs to be turned into a feature film. He came from a slum in Kampala and captured the frustrations of a new generation, first in his music and then in his politics. “I realized nobody’s going to save us,” he said in a magazine interview. “We have to do it on our own.” He became the voice of young Ugandans fed up with rampant corruption by the few, and the deep impoverishment of the many.
He has been arrested countless times, and tortured, for exercising his fundamental right to free speech. The fact that Wine had to campaign wearing a bulletproof vest and helmet tells you much about Ugandan politics—and about Wine’s dedication.
In the weeks leading up to the January elections, Human Rights Watch documented “killings by security forces, arrests and beatings of opposition supporters and journalists, disruption of opposition rallies, and a shutdown of the internet.” Museveni was declared the winner, and Wine was placed under house arrest. Wine will fight on, surely.
What Uncommon People Have in Common
These dissidents all come from different backgrounds and work in different contexts. Still, there is value in bringing together examples like these, to help us better understand what makes such exceptional leaders.
Working on human rights and following dissidents like these—at times, even being lucky enough to work with them—I have found one trait keeps coming through: certainty of vision and focus.
Two decades ago, I asked the Russian investigative journalist and human rights defender Anna Politkovskaya how she could keep doing what she did. For her reporting on abuses by Russian forces in the Second Chechen War, the military detained her, beat her, and subjected her to a mock execution.
“How can you go on with your investigations?” I asked. “Surely you know the military’s intimidation is not just for show, and that they may actually kill you next time, no?”
“Of course,” she replied. She saw no choice: The crimes had to be exposed, and she was in a position to do it. She knew the risks.
Politkovskaya was poisoned on a plane in 2004, much as Navalny was last year. She survived the poisoning but was shot dead outside her apartment in 2006.
I don’t believe that human rights defenders like Politkovskaya have any desire to become martyrs. They feel taken over by the gravity of the issue and become possessed by the historical importance of what they do.
All such dissidents see what is fundamental in a way that those around them do not—or at least cannot put into words. Their societies are mired in corruption and power networks, but they cut through it with basic demands that resonate: the right to speak your mind; the right to a healthy environment; the right to protest peacefully; the right to vote for your leaders and have your vote counted. They’re not asking for the world, but for what hundreds of millions of people around the world already have—and often take for granted.
It’s the simplicity of their message that makes these dissidents effective. That simplicity can be the catalyst for widespread support, and the politically minded among them know that. But what’s true of all of them is this: They can’t see it any other way.
Most people look at Navalny returning to Russia, and consider it irrational. But a dissident sees the irrational as a calling. And if what’s “rational” means social consensus, then these paths do look “irrational.” But for the dissidents, it’s the authorities who are irrational. The dissidents remain hard-headed year after year until—with hard work and luck—more and more of society flips what it sees as rational and irrational. Then we witness a victory in a courtroom, or a pivotal election result, or maybe even something monumental like the end of an oppressive system.
More often, sadly, the authorities crush them. The fact is that most dissidents don’t end up persuading their societies to change. Many dissidents face an awful fate that they could see coming. It’s not that they don’t care about their own life; it’s that they want to make their one life matter.
Along with my colleagues, I was privileged to join in a long-distance interview last year of a jailed human rights defender in Kyrgyzstan, Azimjon Askarov, just months before he died in prison because the authorities denied him adequate medical care. Of the many profound things he said after 10 years of wrongful imprisonment, I’ll remember this most: “Even though I am in prison, I feel the freedom of my soul.”
Many will think that sounds irrational. But within this worldview, which I am beginning to understand and share, it makes sense. Repressive authorities keep trying to gaslight us. But we hold on to what’s real, at least in the one place that we control and they can’t reach: the soul.
We see dissidents’ bravery and vision as inspiring, but also incomprehensible. We struggle to understand what makes them choose such a dangerous path. But that’s just it: We see it as a brave choice. They don’t see any choice at all.