OpinionThey clicked once. Then came the dark prisons.

On Feb. 27, 2022, Danuta Perednya, a 21-year old university student, reposted a message on the social media app Telegram criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko for the war in Ukraine.

On Dec. 28, 2020, a young Saudi woman, Salma al-Shehab, tweeted an appeal to release Loujain al-Hathloul, an activist who was in prison for seeking the right of women to drive in the kingdom.

In October, a 19-year-old Russian university student, Olesya Krivtsova, posted an Instagram story criticizing Russia’s war in Ukraine. Her fellow students at Northern Federal University, in the northern city of Arkhangelsk, took a screenshot of the Instagram story — and reported her to the authorities.


On Feb. 27, 2022, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/07/09/belarus-social-media-punishments-ukraine-war/" target=_blank>Danuta Perednya</a>, a 21-year old university student, reposted a message on the social media app Telegram criticizing Russian President Vladimir Putin<i> </i>and Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko<i> </i>for the war in Ukraine.

On Dec. 28, 2020, a young Saudi woman, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2022/08/16/salma-al-shehab-prison-sentence-saudi-arabia/" target=_blank>Salma al-Shehab</a>, tweeted an appeal to release Loujain al-Hathloul, an activist who was in prison for seeking the right of women to drive in the kingdom.

In October<i>,</i> a 19-year-old Russian university student, <a href="https://www.severreal.org/a/studentku-iz-arhangelska-otpravili-pod-domashniy-arest-po-delu-ob-opravdanii-terrorizma/32207360.html" target=_blank>Olesya Krivtsova</a>, <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2023/01/19/arkhangelsk-student-war-critic-arrested/" target=_blank>posted</a> an Instagram story criticizing Russia’s war<i> </i>in Ukraine. Her fellow students at Northern Federal University, in the northern city of Arkhangelsk, took a screenshot of the Instagram story <i>— </i>and reported her to the authorities.

Ms. Perednya was arrested and sentenced to 6½ years in prison. Ms. Shehab was sentenced to 34 years in prison and to a 34-year travel ban. Ms. Krivtsova has been added to a list of terrorists and extremists, charged with discrediting the military and put under house arrest, and she is facing seven years in prison. They all are being punished by despotic regimes for nothing more than posting or reposting something on social media.

That’s all — a click.

They are hardly alone. The world’s political prisons are bulging. A string of popular uprisings over the past few years brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to the streets, protesting against authoritarianism in Hong Kong, Cuba, Belarus and Iran; against the military junta that toppled democracy in Myanmar; and against strict restrictions on speech and protest in Russia and China. Also, Arab Spring uprisings swept Egypt, Syria and elsewhere a decade ago, and protests broke out in Vietnam in 2018. Most of these protests were met with mass crackdowns and arrests. Thousands of participants — largely young and demonstrating for the first time — have been held in prison for demanding the right to speak and think freely and to choose their leaders.

Authoritarian regimes often work in the shadows, using secret police to threaten dissidents, censor the media, prohibit travel or choke off internet access. But when prisons are jam-packed with thousands who simply marched down the street or sent a tweet, the repression is no longer hidden; it is a bright, pulsating signal that freedom is in distress.

Arrested for political protest

Belarus, Cuba and Vietnam have thrown thousands into prison in recent years.

*Justicia 11J says 990 people are imprisoned and convicted or pending trial in Cuba.


Political prisons are, sadly, not new. During the 20th century, the practice of mass repression grew to immense proportions in Joseph Stalin’s gulag system of forced labor camps. Political prisons have been notorious in Fidel Castro’s Cuba; Saddam Hussein’s Iraq; Cold War East Germany; apartheid South Africa; North Korea; and, in recent years, in China’s Xinjiang region.

According to the classic definition, formulated by Carl J. Friedrich and Zbigniew Brzezinski in 1956, a totalitarian dictatorship is characterized by an ideology, a single party led by one person, a terroristic police, government control of all communications, a weapons monopoly and a centrally controlled economy. In today’s world, fewer authoritarian states run a command economy. But many embrace the other characteristics. The political prisons are where the threads come together, punishing those who challenge a regime’s monopoly on power.

In earlier times, dissidents carried placards, issued manifestoes, staged strikes and engaged in public demonstrations. In one famous case, in August 1968, eight demonstrators took to Moscow’s Red Square to protest the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in order to suppress the Prague Spring. “For your freedom and ours!” read one banner. Within minutes, the KGB tore down the banners and arrested the protesters. When dissenters were not easily found, the secret police still were on the prowl; the East German Ministry of State Security, known as the Stasi, developed an elaborate system to anticipate dissent and snuff it out. Neighbors informed on neighbors. Living under dictators usually meant living in fear.

Then came the digital revolution. The internet appeared to be the ultimate antidote to autocracy. It was open, decentralized, beyond a state’s control; it was global and empowered hundreds of millions of people to speak their minds without fear of retribution. Even when a prosperous and rising China sought to close itself off from the global internet with a Great Firewall and vast censorship, the digital byways still erupted periodically with fury and criticism. The world didn’t change overnight — fear of speaking out still lingered for many. But for a time, free speech began to outpace the ability of government to control it.

Jailed for speaking out

Photo of Maedeh Afrawi

Maedeh Afrawi, 19


Afrawi joined the Iran uprising that occurred after the death of Mahsa Amini in police custody in September. She was arrested in November and is in pretrial detention on a charge of “participation in a public gathering.”

Photo of Adam Sauko

Adam Sauko, 20


Sauko was detained Nov. 9, 2021, and charged with organizing actions that “grossly violate public order.” He was sentenced to five years in prison.

Photo of Viktar Dzibrou

Viktar Dzibrou, 26


Dzibrou was detained in August, initially charged with “insulting the president,” and later prosecuted for “promoting extremist activities.” He was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison.

Photo of Marfa Rabkova

Marfa Rabkova, 28


Rabkova is a human rights defender for Viasna, a Belarusian human rights organization, charged with “organizing, participating in and training others to participate in mass riots,” “inciting social hostility towards the government” and “involvement in a criminal organization.” She was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Photo of Marwa Arafa

Marwa Arafa, 29


Arafa, the mother of a 3-year-old daughter, had distributed humanitarian aid to prisoners’ families. She was arrested in April 2020 and remains in detention on charges of “joining a terrorist group.”

Photo of Ihar Losik

Ihar Losik, 30


Ihar Losik led a Telegram channel with 172,000 followers. He was arrested on June 25, 2020, and charged with “incitement to hatred” and “organizing riots.” He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Photo of Darya Losik

Darya Losik, 31


After a TV interview in which Losik, the wife of jailed Ihar Losik, criticized the authorities and insisted her husband was not a criminal, she was arrested on Oct. 18 and charged with “facilitating extremism.” She was sentenced to two years in prison.

Photo of Katsiaryna Khulkhachieva

Katsiaryna Khulkhachieva, 31


Khulkhachieva was arrested on Sept. 29, 2021, and charged with “insulting the president,” “insulting a government official” and “incitement to hatred” in an online post. She is still in pretrial detention.

Photo of Alberto García Scull

Alberto García Scull, 34


Scull, who participated in the July 11, 2022, protests, the largest in Cuba in decades, was sentenced to 18 months in prison on charges of “contempt," "public disorder” and perpetrating an “insult to the symbols of the homeland.”

Photo of Moataz Hasbelnaby

Moataz Hasbelnaby


Hasbelnaby posted a selfie with a sign saying “Free Moka,” showing support for his friend imprisoned at the time. He was arrested July 21, 2021, and put in the same cell as his friend, who was then released. Moataz remains imprisoned.

The authoritarian rulers were not idle. They planned to take back the public square, and now they are doing it. According to Freedom on the Net 2022, published by Freedom House, between June 2021 and May 2022, authorities in 40 countries blocked social, political or religious content online, an all-time high. Social media has made people feel as though they can speak openly, but technological tools also allow autocrats to target individuals. Social media users leave traces: words, locations, contacts, network links. Protesters are betrayed by the phones in their pockets. Regimes criminalized free speech and expression on social media, prohibiting “insulting the president” (Belarus), “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” (China), “discrediting the military” (Russia) or “public disorder” (Cuba).

Ms. Perednya’s case is chilling. She was an honors student at Belarus’s Mogilev State University. Three days after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she reposted, in a chat on Telegram, another person’s harsh criticism of Mr. Putin and Mr. Lukashenko, calling for street protests and saying Belarus’s army should not enter the conflict.

She was arrested the next day while getting off a bus to attend classes. Judges have twice upheld her 6½-year sentence on charges of “causing damage to the national interests of Belarus” and “insulting the president.”

In Saudi Arabia, Ms. Shehab’s tweet was a simple hashtag, #FreeLoujain. It was a reference to Loujain al-Hathloul, the women’s rights activist who was at the time imprisoned for demanding the right to drive. Ms. Shehab was detained in January 2021 and initially charged with trying to “disturb public order and destabilize the security and stability of the state.” Later, prosecutors said she should be charged under counterterrorism and cybercrime statutes and was given the horrific 34-year sentence. Her two sons were 4 and 6 years old when she was detained, and she has not seen them in two years. Ms. Hathloul was released from prison just weeks after Ms. Shehab was arrested.

In July 2021, a husband and wife in Belarus, Anastasiya Krupenich-Kandratsiyeva, a teacher, and Siarhei Krupenich, a tech worker, exchanged messages with each other over Telegram, sharing reposts from some of the hundred or so channels Belarus’s dictatorship has labeled as “extremist.” They were arrested. At a police station, officers opened Ms. Krupenich-Kandratsiyeva’s phone and found the messages. The couple each spent several months in prison, then were released and fled the country.

Freedom on the Net 2022 surveyed internet freedom in 70 countries, covering 89 percent of the world’s internet users. Officials in at least 53 countries charged, arrested or imprisoned internet users in retaliation for posts about political or social causes. This kind of repression is deepening in Ethiopia, Libya, Morocco, Myanmar, Rwanda and Turkey. Very rarely is it reversed, as in Nicaragua, where 222 political prisoners were released and forced into exile last week.

Of all countries in the world, however, China remains the most repressive. It has used prison camps since the early days of the People’s Republic, as depicted in the 1973 memoir “Prisoner of Mao,” by Bao Ruo-Wang. He was labeled a counterrevolutionary and sent to forced labor camps in the late 1950s. At one point, he was handcuffed and stuffed into a coffin-like cell not large enough to stand in, with a dirty blanket, a wooden bucket for a latrine and a light bulb that never went off.

Today, Chinese authorities deploy multiple types of coercion and repression: the forced incarceration of more than 1 million Uyghurs, many of them in bleak concentration camps surrounded by barbed wire; a long-running campaign against the religious group Falun Gong and unofficial Christian churches; targeted punishment for dissent; and a relentless attempt to censor the internet. Freedom on the Net 2022 says that China remains “the world’s worst environment for internet freedom,” adding that “journalists, human rights activists, members of religious and ethnic minority groups, and ordinary users were detained for sharing online content, with some facing harsh prison sentences.”

The database run by the Congressional-Executive Commission on China has 2,506 active cases of detention in China, referring to political and religious prisoners currently known or believed to be detained or imprisoned, or under coercive controls. Another database, maintained by the Dui Hua humanitarian organization, which has tracked political and religious cases since 1980, lists 7,683 active cases, many of which involve members of the outlawed Falun Gong religious group. In recent years, the Chinese government has better concealed details about political prisoners. But it is clear that the government’s highly sophisticated surveillance system — including facial recognition and even technology that can identify a person by their gait — is zeroing in on dissent and protest.

After a wave of protest against covid-19 restrictions in late November, Doa, a 28-year-old tech worker in Beijing, told The Post that she and a friend were at a night demonstration briefly, keeping away from police and people filming with their phones. “I worked before in the social media industry. … I know how those things can be used by police,” she said. “They still found me. I’m still wondering how that is possible.” She added: “All I can think of is that they knew my phone’s location.” Two days later, police called her mother, claiming Doa had participated in “illegal riots” and would soon be detained. “I don’t know why they did it that way. I think it creates fear,” Doa said. A few hours later, the police called her directly, and she was summoned to a police station in northern Beijing, where her phone was confiscated and she underwent a series of interrogations over roughly nine hours. The group Chinese Human Rights Defenders estimates that more than 100 people have been detained for the November protests.

The worldwide toll of this sort of 21st-century authoritarianism is growing. Over the past four years, just four uprisings in various parts of the world have led to nearly 18,000 people being arrested and incarcerated. In Belarus, mass demonstrations erupted after Mr. Lukashenko stole an August 2020 election. The number of political prisoners in Belarus has soared from a handful to 1,441 now. In Myanmar, or Burma, citizens are fighting a military coup that overthrew its young democracy in February 2021. There are 13,884 political prisoners there today. In Cuba, on July 11, 2021, a massive and spontaneous street protest broke out across the island, and more than 1,000 have been arrested in its wake. In Hong Kong, there were only a handful of political prisoners in 2019, when protests erupted against China’s increasingly authoritarian rule; now, there are 1,337. Another 20,000 people have been detained in Iran since protests began there in September. A young Iranian couple were recently sentenced to five years in prison each after a video went viral on Instagram of them dancing in public, the woman without a head covering.

Many of these prisoners are young. In Hong Kong, about three-fourths of those given prison time are under the age of 30; more than half are under 25. In Cuba, the average age is 32. The situation is similar in Myanmar and Belarus. In Russia, the share of women taking to the streets has risen dramatically in recent years. Women accounted for as much as 31 percent of the crowd in 2021 rallies for Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny; after the Kremlin announced mobilizations of men for the Ukraine war, women made up 51 percent and 71 percent of the crowd at rallies on Sept. 21 and Sept.24, respectively.

Protesters and dissidents need help to evade government controls. Free countries can develop and spread encryption software that protects their digital communications, as well as tools allowing people to circumvent government internet blockages, snooping and tracking. In times of conflict, helping besieged demonstrators stay online and spread the word can be vital, for example by deploying mobile internet technology such as the Starlink terminals used in Ukraine, Iran and elsewhere.

But as authoritarian regimes evolve and adapt to such measures, protesters will require new methods and tools to help them keep their causes alive — before the prison door clangs shut. It is a job not only for democratic governments, but for citizens, universities, nongovernmental organizations, civic groups and, especially, technology companies to figure out how to help in places such as Belarus and Hong Kong, where a powerful state has thrown hundreds of demonstrators into prison without a second thought, or to find new ways to keep protest alive in surveillance-heavy dystopias such as China.

Jailed for speaking out

Photo of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, 35


Otero Alcántara is an artist, activist and leader of the San Isidro Movement, a free-speech group. He posted video saying he was going to protest on July 11, 2021, but was arrested before he got there. In June, he was sentenced to five years in prison.

Photo of Chow Hang-tung

Chow Hang-tung, 38

Hong Kong

Chow, a lawyer and democracy activist, was detained on Sept. 8 and charged with "inciting subversion" under China's new national security law.

Photo of Zhang Zhan

Zhang Zhan, 39


Zhang, who documented pandemic chaos in Wuhan, China, on YouTube, was detained in May 2020 and charged with "picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” She was sentenced to four years in prison.

Photo of Dang Dinh Bach

Dang Dinh Bach, 44


Bach, director of the nonprofit Law and Policy of Sustainable Development, is one of four jailed environmentalist leaders in Vietnam. He was arrested in June 2021, convicted of “tax evasion” and sentenced to five years in prison.

Photo of Gloria María Lopez Valle

Gloria María Lopez Valle, 47


Lopez Valle, a July 11, 2021 protester, was charged with “public disorder” and “contempt.” She was sentenced to five years in prison.

Photo of Alexei Gorinov

Alexei Gorinov, 61


Gorinov, a Moscow district councilman, opposed the war in Ukraine and was charged with “knowingly distributing false information” about Russia’s military. He was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Photo of Wang Yuwen and Wang Liqin

Wang Yuwen and Wang Liqin


Wang Yuwen was arrested in 2020 for “inciting subversion of state power” based on his poetry, essays, art and interviews with foreign media. Wang Liqin was detained after advocating on Twitter for his release. He was sentenced to four years in prison, and she to two-and-a-half years.

Photo of Nabil Abu Sheikha

Nabil Abu Sheikha


Sheikha, a lawyer, mocked an actor who plays Egyptian President Abdul Fatah El-Sisi in a television series. He was arrested April 11, 2022, and has been held in pretrial detention.

Photo of Oleksandr Lytvyniuk and Oleksandr Dubovenko

Oleksandr Lytvyniuk and Oleksandr Dubovenko

Russian-controlled Crimea

Lytvyniuk and Dubovenko, both Jehovah's Witnesses, were sentenced to six years in prison in December — for talking about the Bible on a Zoom call.

Free nations should also use whatever diplomatic leverage they have. When the United States and other democracies have contact with these regimes, they should raise political prisoners’ cases, making the autocrats squirm by giving them lists and names — and imposing penalties. The Global Magnitsky Act offers a mechanism for singling out the perpetrators, going beyond broad sanctions on countries and aiming visa bans and asset freezes at individuals who control the systems that seize so many innocent prisoners. The dictators should hear, loud and clear, that brutish behavior will not be excused or ignored.

Every political prisoner’s case is a travesty of justice. Freedom of expression, association and belief are not crimes. The most powerful answer is to shine a spotlight on plight of political prisoners and make sure they are not forgotten.

Veteran activists currently fighting for their freedom

Photo of Vladimir Kara-Murza

Vladimir Kara-Murza, 41


Kara-Murza, a Russian opposition leader and Post contributing columnist, has been imprisoned in Moscow since April 2022 for speaking out against the war in Ukraine.

Photo of Alexei Navalny

Alexei Navalny, 46


Navalny, the leading opposition voice to Russian President Vladimir Putin, was arrested in 2021 and sentenced to at least 11 years in prison on sham charges of fraud and contempt of court.

Photo of José Daniel Ferrer

José Daniel Ferrer, 52


Ferrer, leader of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, is a leading opposition voice. He was imprisoned after the July 11, 2021 protests on an old bogus charge of assault.

Photo of Ales Bialiatski

Ales Bialiatski, 60


Bialiatski, founder of human rights organization Viasna, was a winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize. He was arrested in 2021 after mass demonstrations against Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. His trial is underway.

Photo of Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi, 77


Suu Kyi was the de facto leader of a civilian government in Myanmar that was overthrown by a military coup in 2021. She was sentenced to 33 years in prison on politically motivated charges.

About this story

Photographs courtesy of Viasna, European Saudi Organization for Human Rights, Natalya Krivtsova, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Freedom Initiative, REFORM.BY, The 88 Project, Justica 11J, Iran Prison Atlas, Getty, AP, Shutterstock, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Chinese Human Rights Defenders.

The Post’s View | About the Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).