Documents on Democracy

Issue Date January 2024
Volume 35
Issue 1
Page Numbers 167–175
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Iranian women’s rights activist Narges Mohammadi received the Nobel Peace Prize for her promotion of freedom and fight against oppression and violence. She is currently serving more than twelve years in Tehran’s Evin Prison on charges of spreading propaganda against the state. Mohammadi was able to smuggle this letter of gratitude out of prison. Her daughter Kiana Rahmani read the letter in a video posted on the Nobel Committee’s website. Excerpts follow:

We, the people of the Middle East in countries like Iran and Afghanistan, have experienced life under tyranny and discrimination and discovered the necessity of implementing the concepts of freedom, democracy, and human rights even before recognizing and understanding them through the study of scholarly theories and scientific texts. We have arisen to fight against the violators and enemies of these concepts because from our very childhood we are exposed to the domination, blatant and hidden violence, tyranny, and discrimination of authoritarian regimes in our daily lives.

At the age of nine, when I heard my mother’s cries of mourning after the execution of her niece, a university student, and my grandmother’s lamentations because her son had been tortured, my childhood dreams were cruelly shattered. At that time, I had no understanding of the concepts of execution and torture. In the 1980s, no one heard the stories or the voices of those mothers who were pleading for justice. It was the decade of executions, torture, rape, and assault in prisons, crimes one of the policy makers and enforcers of which was Ibrahim Raisi, the current President of the Islamic Republic. No one was hearing anything then because authoritarianism cloaked in the mantle of religion imposed widespread suppression, poverty, and unbridled misery on Iran.

I was a 19-year-old girl when I was detained because of wearing an orange coat. At the detention center, breathless with disbelief, horror, and shock, I saw grim-looking men in black uniforms with whips in their hands who relentlessly lashed the bodies of four women who had been detained without due process of law similar to tens of others. Many years later, the world witnessed last year that a young woman by the name of Mahsa-Jina Amini was confronted by the Morality Police on the pretext of wearing an improper “hijab” and as a result lost her life. Hundreds of protesters were shot with rubber bullets and real ones and were killed, six protesters were hanged from the gallows, and a wave of arrests, torture, solitary confinements, assault, persecution, and harassment engulfed protesters and women. Universities were invaded by repressive security forces, civil institutions and activists were cracked down on more than ever before, and even those families that were seeking justice were imprisoned.

I hereby declare that the Islamic Republic imposes compulsory hijab on the society not out of concern for religious obligations, nor for the sake of social customs and traditions, nor as it claims, to preserve the dignity and prestige of women; rather, it openly forces the compulsory hijab on them for the purpose of suppressing and controlling women and for extending that control to the entire society. Thus, it legalizes and institutionalizes discrimination and oppression against women. But Iranian women are conscious of this and therefore, will not tolerate it.

The compulsory hijab is a means of control and repression imposed on the society and on which the continuation and survival of this authoritarian religious regime depends; a regime that has institutionalized deprivation and poverty in society for forty-five years; a regime built on lies, deception, cunning, and intimidation; a regime that has jeopardized peace in the region and in the world with its tension-fueled and belligerent policies.

In Iran today, women and the youth are the largest and most radical and progressive social groups that fight against religious authoritarianism and want to bring about fundamental change with an aim to achieve lasting peace in Iran, in the Middle East, and in the world.

The world observes that the revolutionary movement of Woman, Life, Freedom continues its campaign and resistance in Iran, and is a hard struggle for the survival and the real life of society. The strength of this movement lies in the agency of Iranian women. We assuredly know what we want far better than what we do not want. We believe in it, commit to it, and are certain of victory!

We, the people of Iran, demand democracy, freedom, human rights, and equality, and the Islamic Republic is the main obstacle in the way of realizing these national demands. We have decided and are struggling to transition away from this religious authoritarian regime through solidarity and drawing on the power of a non-violent and unstoppable process in order to revive the honor and pride of Iran and human dignity and prestige for its people.

Finally, with a heart filled with love, hope, and enthusiasm I offer my warmest greetings and sincere gratitude to the honorable Nobel Committee on behalf of the forty-six women prisoners of conscience and political prisoners at Evin Prison, women campaigners with diverse political and intellectual orientations from past decades, Baha’i prisoners of conscience, environmental activists, intellectuals, passionate women protesters in the Mahsa-Jina Movement, journalists, and university students. . . .

Victory is not easy, but it is certain.


Russian artist Sasha Skochilenko was sentenced to seven years in prison on 16 November 2023 on charges of knowingly spreading false information about the Russian army. She has been detained since March after surveillance cameras and witnesses saw her replacing price tags in a St. Petersburg grocery store with five stickers criticizing the war in Ukraine. Excerpts from Skochilenko’s final court statement, which was originally published on Telegram and has been translated by Mediazona, appear below:

If these five pieces of paper are so alarming, why initiate these proceedings? To have us repeatedly declare these allegedly society-threatening statements? Yet here we are, reciting the “price tags” over and over throughout the trial. And the result? Did the earth split open? Did a revolution start? Did soldiers start fraternizing across [the] frontlines? Nothing of the sort happened. So, what’s the actual problem?

The state prosecutor repeatedly declared my actions extremely dangerous to society and the state. How fragile must the prosecutor’s belief in our state and society be, if he thinks that our statehood and public safety can be brought down by five small pieces of paper?

When someone instigates a mutiny inflicting substantial damage to our country [a reference to the rebellion led by the late leader of the Wagner Group, Yevgeny Prigozhin], their criminal case is swiftly opened and closed within a day. No one was hurt by my actions, yet I’ve been incarcerated for over a year and a half now, alongside murderers, thieves, statutory rapists, and pimps. Can the supposed harm I caused even compare to these crimes?

Each court sentence communicates to society. Regardless of your view on my actions, you’d likely agree that I demonstrated courage and character strength, was not hypocritical, and remained truthful to myself and honest with this court, acting in line with my moral compass. And you must acknowledge that I possess such principles, even if you personally share different ones. In investigator lingo, jailing someone is termed “taking a captive.” Well, I didn’t give up and remained unbroken in this “captivity,” despite facing harassment, illness, and hunger threats.

If a sentence sends a message to the nation, consider what you’re communicating to our citizens by convicting me. That they have to give up? That they have to be hypocrites? That they have to admit to something they are not guilty of? Are we suggesting that it’s wrong to empathize with our soldiers? Or to desire peaceful skies? That our society and our state can be destroyed by five small pieces of paper? Is it really something you want to signal to people in times of crisis, instability, depression, and stress?

My trial has garnered significant attention in Russia and worldwide. Tens, possibly hundreds of thousands, follow it, with books being written and documentaries filmed. Your verdict, whatever it may be, will be historical. You might be remembered for imprisoning, acquitting, or for a neutral decision like a fine, suspended sentence, or for deeming I’ve served my time. Everyone sees and knows you aren’t trying a terrorist. You are trying a pacifist. . . .

The state prosecutor believes in a very different truth from mine. He is convinced of the existence of so-called “NATO sycophants” or that all independent media are financed from abroad. But the difference between our prosecutor and me is that I would never imprison him for this. . . .

Your Honour! I understand that for you, this isn’t just a job, a routine case, working hours and a lot of paperwork. Probably, amidst this routine, as with any job, the essence is blurred and forgotten. But the truth is that you wield great power: to determine human destinies. In this case, you hold my fate, my health, my life, and the happiness of my loved ones in your hands. I believe that you will wield this power wisely.

United Kingdom/Global

The 2023 AI Safety Summit took place the first two days of November at Bletchley Park, Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom. The summit brought together governments from nearly 30 countries, multilateral organizations, academic and civil society organizations, and tech industry leaders from across the globe to discuss the risks of emerging AI and coordinate action toward safe and ethical global AI development and regulation. Excerpts from the Bletchley Declaration, jointly published by the attending countries at the start of the summit, appear below:

Artificial Intelligence (AI) presents enormous global opportunities: it has the potential to transform and enhance human wellbeing, peace, and prosperity. To realize this, we affirm that, for the good of all, AI should be designed, developed, deployed, and used, in a manner that is safe, in such a way as to be human-centric, trustworthy, and responsible. We welcome the international community’s efforts so far to cooperate on AI to promote inclusive economic growth, sustainable development and innovation, to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, and to foster public trust and confidence in AI systems to fully realize their potential. . . .

Alongside these opportunities, AI also poses significant risks, including in those domains of daily life. To that end, we welcome relevant international efforts to examine and address the potential impact of AI systems in existing fora and other relevant initiatives, and the recognition that the protection of human rights, transparency and explainability, fairness, accountability, regulation, safety, appropriate human oversight, ethics, bias mitigation, privacy, and data protection needs to be addressed. We also note the potential for unforeseen risks stemming from the capability to manipulate content or generate deceptive content. All of these issues are critically important and we affirm the necessity and urgency of addressing them.

Particular safety risks arise at the ‘frontier’ of AI, understood as being those highly capable general-purpose AI models, including foundation models, that could perform a wide variety of tasks—as well as relevant specific narrow AI that could exhibit capabilities that cause harm—which match or exceed the capabilities present in today’s most advanced models. Substantial risks may arise from potential intentional misuse or unintended issues of control relating to alignment with human intent. These issues are in part because those capabilities are not fully understood and are therefore hard to predict. We are especially concerned by such risks in domains such as cybersecurity and biotechnology, as well as where frontier AI systems may amplify risks such as disinformation. There is potential for serious, even catastrophic, harm, either deliberate or unintentional, stemming from the most significant capabilities of these AI models. Given the rapid and uncertain rate of change of AI, and in the context of the acceleration of investment in technology, we affirm that deepening our understanding of these potential risks and of actions to address them is especially urgent.

Many risks arising from AI are inherently international in nature, and so are best addressed through international cooperation. We resolve to work together in an inclusive manner to ensure human-centric, trustworthy, and responsible AI that is safe, and supports the good of all through existing international fora and other relevant initiatives, to promote cooperation to address the broad range of risks posed by AI. . . . With regard to the specific risks most likely found in relation to frontier AI, we resolve to intensify and sustain our cooperation, and broaden it with further countries, to identify, understand and as appropriate act, through existing international fora and other relevant initiatives, including future international AI Safety Summits.

All actors have a role to play in ensuring the safety of AI: nations, international fora and other initiatives, companies, civil society, and academia will need to work together. Noting the importance of inclusive AI and bridging the digital divide, we reaffirm that international collaboration should endeavor to engage and involve a broad range of partners as appropriate, and welcome development-orientated approaches and policies that could help developing countries strengthen AI capacity building and leverage the enabling role of AI to support sustainable growth and address the development gap. . . .

We resolve to support an internationally inclusive network of scientific research on frontier AI safety that encompasses and complements existing and new multilateral, plurilateral and bilateral collaboration, including through existing international fora and other relevant initiatives, to facilitate the provision of the best science available for policy making and the public good.

Republic of the Congo

Emma Martial Mbourangon, who goes by the name Martial Pa’nucci, is a political hip hop musician and grassroots activist working for peace in the Republic of Congo. The song “An Open Letter to the Presidents of Africa” is part of his next new album. Translated excerpts follow:

Hey, hey
Yoka, yoka

Dear Mr. Presidents
You have controlled Africa for more than 60 years now
And in these few years, you assassinated
Many African leaders as the colonizer did in 400 years

And doing this you’ve almost washed away their crimes
Like the crime of slavery
Despite the thousands of deaths it caused

Deaths that you have hidden
By walking on History
You have trampled their memory
Without hesitation . . .

Dear Mr. Presidents
Instead of governing
You spend your time stealing
Instead of respecting the fundamental laws you mess with them
And you defile the people for your politicking whims

And when we take to the streets to demand that you respect the law
You strike us down like animals
You strike us without reason
Just like those who disappear without a sound
You dilapidate what is rightfully ours
You take on the role of the despot
You turn our countries into your personal homes for your families, and your passing caravans
While our hopes for democracy cry out and drown

You are oligarchs
You foment war with your shenanigans
And coldly decimate the people you starve in ghettos
We want true hospitals
And not these death chambers without doctors, where we die
Without any saints
While you run off to the West for medical treatment . . .

Dear Mr. Presidents
You claim to all be fighting
For Africa’s development
But you close the borders and prevent Africans from communicating
While you plunder Africa’s money
And hide it in Swiss bank accounts
While we eat poorly
You encourage brain drains and capital flights
Skilled hands flee
The slave trade emptied the continent of its able minds and arms
And here you are continuing the work
For monkey money

You take the cash
And condemn the motherland to languish
But by tradition
You are observed and know that
The anger of a mother is as great as that of the skies
Just as the fury of revolt
Does not spare the spades
That dig vaults for the continent
There will be no escape for all these governing gravediggers

Open the borders
Enough of the African Union’s silence, we are breaking the muzzle
We want an African union of peoples
We want to taste peace, fully taste it, otherwise the boat will collapse, heads will fall
And the Revolution will not be elegant
Never again


Indigenous populations filled streets across the country in the first two weeks of October 2023 to protest the challenges to Bernardo Arévalo’s election victory posed by Attorney General Maria Consuelo Porras and other political figures. The nationwide demonstrations were often filled with music, dancing, ceremonies, and chants, and they represent “a watershed moment for Guatemalan democracy.” A joint letter to the indigenous peoples of Guatemala from their community leaders was published on social media on 1 November 2023. Excerpts appear in translation below:

It has been rightly written and said that after October 2023, Guatemala will no longer be the same as the country we knew before.

The hopeful transformation that Guatemala is experiencing, starting from that historic and symbolic month, is due to the exemplary civic struggle called, undertaken, and led by the Ancestral and Community Authorities of the Indigenous Peoples of our country. . . .

It has been correctly said that this fight transcends political parties or elected authorities . . . What has been experienced since last October 2 has become a movement of national significance that, due to its massive nature, diversity of organizational forms and citizen expression, gives clear support to the effort to build the multiethnic, pluricultural, and multilingual society committed to in the 1996 Peace Accords.

This construction, peacefully deployed on highways, streets, and squares throughout the country, now has a path that should always have been clear. It is about building, in democracy, without inequalities and with tolerance, a country and a State, in which all people fit, assuming our ethnic, gender, and class diversity.

There are still dark clouds on the horizon, the fight looks long, but the victories achieved thanks to unity and popular wisdom are irreversible. The coup plotters believed that their threats, with apparent foundation in law, and their violent provocations would intimidate the towns and would demobilize them. They failed in their crude traps, aimed at provoking confrontation and division among citizens.

A corrupt minority of officials, businessmen, and politicians refuses to acknowledge the signs of the times: Guatemala has already decided on change. The month that has passed since the citizen resistance began is a clear sign that time has run out. They will end up in the dustbin of history. . . .

We call on Guatemalans, residents inside or outside the national territory, to stay on this path, with the conviction that, with organization, solidarity, and national unity, we will be able to forge the new spring of peace, democracy, and development.


On 13 October 2022, Peng Lifa staged a lone protest on the Sitong Bridge in Beijing, unfurling large banners disparaging the country’s dictatorship and draconian zero-covid policy. He was swiftly arrested later that day and has not been heard from since. Despite tight censorship, Peng’s message grew popular on social media and inspired demonstrations elsewhere in China. On 16 October 2023, an author under the pseudonym Hu Zimo published this letter in Bitter Winter to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Peng’s protest and disappearance. The letter appears below:

Where is Peng Lifa? This is not a video game, and Peng Lifa is not a fictional character. Although an unexpected character he was, when on October 13, 2022, he dared to climb Sitong Bridge in Beijing to hang a banner protesting Xi Jinping’s idiosyncratic COVID-19 policy and demanding that the President resigns. Nothing similar had ever happened in Beijing.

Peng Lifa, who was active on social media as “Peng Zaizhou” was immediately arrested. The CCP recruited Party members to keep watch 24/7 on all the bridges of the Beijing region, which are in the thousands. The address of Sitong Bridge also mysteriously disappeared from Baidu GPS—lest someone would visit it to pay a silent homage to Peng Lifa. In Chinese Internet search engines “Peng Lifa” and “Sitong Bridge” cannot be searched. Peng’s wife, two minor daughters, and father-in-law, as well as his brothers and sisters are kept under strict surveillance, cannot be active on social media, and can barely talk with outsiders.

Neither they nor anybody else know where Peng Lifa is, nor whether he is still alive. A usually reliable source close to the highest echelons of Public Security told Bitter Winter that Peng is alive and in a psychiatric hospital, but we have no hard evidence of this.

Whatever his fate, Peng is a hero for those who are not victims of CCP propaganda. He was included among the top 100 people of the year 2022 by Time, and was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by politicians of different countries.

Peng’s sacrifice was not in vain. He inspired the massive protests against Xi Jinping’s Zero COVID policy that led to its sudden and spectacular reversal. These demonstrations proved that massive protests against the CCP are not impossible in China, may become so widespread to make the costs of a bloody repression too high for the regime, and may achieve some effects. For all this, all friends of freedom in China and internationally should spare a tear and an applause for Peng Lifa, one year after he was last seen.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy and Johns Hopkins University Press