The news is full of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s release from jail of former rival Mikhail Khodorkovsky and members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot. All concerned were due to be released soon anyway. Their early release signals that Putin is feeling confident. Neither Khodorkovsky nor Pussy Riot is likely to mount a serious challenge to his position and power anytime soon. Russia’s pro-democracy protest movement has withered in the years since it fielded large crowds in Moscow.
Less noticed is the sentencing in Egypt of human rights activists, including my friend Ahmed Maher, to three years hard labor and substantial fines for organizing a demonstration defying a decree issued by the military-backed government that took over after this summer’s coup. The tough sentences indicate that the military is not confident of its power and position. It needs high turnout and high approval in the January 14-15 referendum on its recently proposed constitution before it can be certain the secular activists won’t be able to mobilize large protests. Once their political edge is removed, they too may be released early or even pardoned.
Regimes that jail peaceful opponents are scarcer than once they were on this earth, but there are still lots of them. Ukraine has one of its main opposition leaders jailed on flimsy charges. The protests there are in part about her detention. Cuba still relies on its prisons to keep opposition in line. It has been a particularly bad year–second worst on record–for jailing of journalists. Turkey, Iran and China account for more than half the journalists jailed worldwide. Eritrea, Vietnam, Syria, Azerbaijan, Ethiopia, Egypt, and Uzbekistan follow.
The death less than a month ago of the world’s most notorious political prisoner, former South African President Nelson Mandela, was a stark reminder of how the tables sometimes turn on oppressors. It is difficult to imagine today how Putin or Egypt’s General Sissi might find themselves on the wrong side of history, but it happens more frequently than they might like to admit. It would be smarter for them to be genuinely generous with their opponents rather than risking a turn of the wheel of fortune. In a strange inverse way this 1924 New York Times clip makes the point (via @HistoricalPics):
Where does that take us with Edward Snowden, who risks jail if he were to return to the US? It would be easy enough for me to write a pro-Snowden piece, especially on Christmas eve. Even President Obama admits that Snowden’s revelations generated an important conversation, one that seems likely to lead in due course to some curtailment of the National Security Agency’s massive data collection.
But prompting a necessary and even productive discussion does not free you from the obligations you sign on to when accepting employment that requires a security clearance. I’ve got a cousin who thinks those obligations are a violation of the US constitution. If you think that, I can well imagine that you would regard Snowden as a political opponent who is unjustly being threatened with imprisonment.
Having myself undertaken those obligations, I don’t think they are a violation of the constitution, or any moral or ethical principle to which I am attached. I can use my rights to free speech, or I can sign them away in exchange for access to some of the government’s secrets. Snowden signed his rights away, then betrayed the trust and made sure the entire world knew he was doing it, without attempting to blow the whistle within the confines of his employer. He now claims he did, but has presented no evidence to that effect. Then he absconded, first to China and then to Russia. Maybe some day to Brazil.
How is this like the Egyptian human rights activists who protested a protest law and stayed to get arrested? How is this like Pussy Riot or Khodorkovsky, who endured patently unjust trials? How is it like Mandela or the 211 journalists serving prison terms? How is it even like Adolf Hitler, who served his time and then returned to the political arena and succeeded beyond the imagination of not only the New York Times but just about everyone else as well.
Snowden now says he has already won. I’m sure that’s how he feels. It also tells us who and what he is. With nothing yet changed in NSA behavior or US government policy, he has generated a big furor (including useful debate), hurt US relations with allies, damaged American security and attracted a great deal of attention to himself. I guess we know what his goals were. And it is not surprising he lacks the courage and conviction of Khodorkovsky, Pussy Riot, Ahmed Maher, Nelson Mandela. Even Hitler. I hope he enjoys those Russian pastries. And the journalist who interviewed him shouldn’t be so surprised that he wasn’t followed. He can be sure Moscow’s intelligence services heard every word.