US calls for freedom for 20 women political prisoners

United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power announces the start of the #FreeThe20 campaign from the State Department September 1, 2015 in Washington, DC (AFP Photo/Chip Somodevilla)

Washington (AFP) - The United States launched a drive Tuesday to highlight the plight of 20 women around the world it says have been unfairly imprisoned for their views or political activism.

The "Free the 20" campaign is designed to be tied in to the 20th anniversary of the Beijing declaration, which was signed by 189 countries to promote women's rights as human rights.

Unveiling the program and its promotional hashtag #FreeThe20, Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, urged journalists and activists to publicize the 20 cases.

She said that each day for the 20 until the September 27 anniversary she would raise one case in particular, not because they are the worst injustices but because they represent a facet of the problem.

"Free these 20 women, and free the countless women and girls like them behind bars, because these 20 women only represent a tiny fraction of the women currently being unjustly imprisoned," she said.

"And the governments detaining them are just a handful of the governments around the world that are locking up women for exercising their fundamental freedoms."

The 20 names include three Ethiopians, three Chinese and two Azerbaijanis but Power said no nation had been targeted for -- or spared from -- inclusion in the campaign.

"You'll see a pretty diverse range of governments represented here," she said.

"And all I would say is that we were looking for representative prisoner cases."

The first prisoner cited by the campaign was 44-year-old Chinese lawyer Wang Yu, whom Power said had been imprisoned by authorities for fighting for justice for the excluded.

"For her work, Wang has been harassed, threatened and smeared in the state-run media. On July 9, 2015, Wang herself was detained. So was her husband," Power said.

"She said, 'The truth cannot be long hidden.' In raising Wang's case today and others like it in the days to come, we aim to help her and others expose some of that truth," she said.

"We will continue to repeat Wang Yu's name and that of other women like her over the coming days."

The next woman on the list to be honored Wednesday is Khadija Ismayilova, a 39-year-old Azerbaijani journalist jailed Tuesday for 7.5 years for tax evasion and other economic crimes.

Washington has strongly protested her trial, noting in particular that the Azerbaijani court had refused to hear exculpatory evidence from her employer, US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Only one of the names on the list is a composite rather than an individual.

Power said the campaign had decided to honor all the women imprisoned unfairly in North Korea as one, so as not to put a named person at risk of retribution.