This week marked another Valentine’s Day and the world was abuzz with expressions of love and affection. Yet, amidst the sea of roses and chocolates, there lies a stark reality for many: the agony of separation from loved ones. For dissidents around the globe, this pain is not merely a matter of distance; it is the consequence of standing against tyranny - for speaking truth to power.
As CEO of Index on Censorship, I have witnessed the bravery of individuals who dare to challenge oppression, knowing full well the risks they face. We need to remember this every day - but this week, Valentine's week, there is a responsibility on all of us to recognise their sacrifice and the profound commitment that drives them to advocate for change and to continue their struggle against tyrants - in spite of the personal cost for them and their loved ones.
One example is Russian activist and thorn-in-Putin's-side Alexei Navalny, whose death in a penal colony has been reported today. In 2020, Navalny fell into a coma after suspected poisoning with the nerve agent novichok and was taken to Germany for treatment. The poisoning was widely believed to have been ordered by Putin and suspicion about his death has immediately turned to the Russian president.
To the surprise of many, in 2021 Navalny returned to Russia with his wife, Yulia Navalnaya. He was immediately arrested on a variety of trumped-up charges. At the time of his death, he was serving a 19-year sentence. Navalny and his wife have been apart ever since their return to Russia, with her husband sent to a series of penal colonies, each more hideous than the last. Appearing at the 2023 Oscars when the Navalny documentary about her husband won the best documentary award, Navalnaya said in an emotional speech "Alexei, I’m dreaming of the day when you will be free and our country will be free. Stay strong, my love."
Another example is Andrei Aliaksandrau and his partner Irina Zlobina. Andrei, a former member of the Index team and a Belarusian journalist and human rights defender, has dedicated his life to exposing the truth and holding those in power accountable. However, his commitment to freedom of expression has come at a personal great cost. In November 2020, Andrei was arrested by Belarusian authorities in a crackdown on dissent following the disputed presidential election. Since then, he has been detained, facing trumped-up charges and enduring harsh conditions behind bars.
Irina too was arrested and sentenced on similar charges. Now they find themselves separated by Lukashenka in different prisons in Belarus.
For Andrei and Irina, Valentine's Day serves as a painful reminder of their separation. While the world celebrates love, they are forced to endure the anguish of being torn apart by injustice.
These are just two examples among thousands of others. A reminder that there are many different manifestations of love is Tamara Davila, whose heartbreaking ordeal underscores the intersection of love and dissent in the face of authoritarian oppression. Deported from Nicaragua to the United States for daring to speak out against the government, Tamara's enforced separation from her daughter and wider family serves as a chilling example of how the Nicaraguan authorities wield love as a weapon against dissenters. Despite the government's attempts to silence her, Tamara's enduring love for her family fuels her resolve to continue fighting for justice and freedom, demonstrating the profound power of love in the face of adversity. Her story serves as a stark reminder that even in the darkest of times, love remains an unyielding force that empowers individuals to stand up for what is right, no matter the cost.
These stories encapsulate the intersection of love and dissent—a powerful force that transcends borders and inspires change. Despite the physical distance separating dissidents and their partners and families, their love fuels their resilience, reminding us all of the inherent connection between personal relationships and the broader struggle for human rights.
This Valentine's week, let us honour the courage of individuals like Alexei and Yulia, Andrei and Irina, and Tamara and her daughter by amplifying their voices and demanding justice. Let us stand in solidarity with all those who sacrifice their freedom for the sake of truth and justice. And let us never forget that love, in all its forms, has the power to overcome even the most formidable obstacles.
In the spirit of Valentine's Day, let us reaffirm our commitment to love and dissent, recognising that they are not mutually exclusive but rather intertwined in the fight for a more just and free world.