It must be awful to be a political prisoner. Far less awful but also upsetting is to have friends who are political prisoners. Two of mine have been seized and jailed by embittered autocrats. While I and all my other friends live freely and do as we please, they have been cast into dungeons from which they may never emerge. Their fate evokes disquieting reflections on power, morality, the psychology of the tyrant, and fate’s eternal unfairness.
My two friends are imprisoned by acts of monstrous injustice. Judges obeying orders from above convicted them of imaginary crimes and meted out long sentences. This is a privilege of arbitrary power. With a nod or a signature, you may destroy anyone who ever irritated or defied you. Outsiders can do little more than look on in horror. My friends are hardly the first peaceful people to suffer this fate. Since they are my friends, though, I conjure their suffering more vividly.
What must be especially jarring for them, I imagine, is the loss of control over their daily lives. Since my friends have been in jail, I have become acutely aware of the array of choices I get to make over the course of my day. I normally wake up early, but today I think I’ll sleep in. Please be sure there’s lemon with my tea. I was going to take a walk, but I’m absorbed in a new book, so I’ll stay home instead. Mustard on my sandwich, no mayonnaise. Close the curtain but leave the window open — I like a breeze.
My imprisoned friends cannot make decisions like those. Their days are harshly regimented. They must forever do what they are told. Perhaps even worse is the emotion they must feel as they contemplate the plans they once made, their patriotic dreams, their family lives, their hopes for peaceful later years. All have been vaporized at the whim of a vengeful potentate.
When my friend Osman Kavala was a 25-year-old student at the New School in New York, his father died, leaving him in control of a family conglomerate back home in Turkey. He became a most unusual businessman. I first met him after he canceled construction of a waterfront hotel because its lights would disorient turtles that laid eggs on the beach below. Later he endowed a foundation aimed at shaping the Turkey of his dreams, “a society that has managed to shed its prejudices, that finds nourishment and enrichment through differences, and where cultural diversity is not perceived as a source of conflict but wealth.”
When President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan launched a fierce political crackdown in the wake of a failed coup in 2016, Osman was among the most prominent victims. Erdoğan called him an agent of the billionaire regime-change guru George Soros. His real crime was rejecting Erdoğan’s ethno-nationalism and devoting his fortune to the ideal of a diverse and tolerant Turkey. Last month, at the age of 64, Osman was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole.
“One day, for reasons still unknown, he attracted Erdoğan’s attention,” the scholar and activist Dilek Kurban wrote after Osman’s sentencing. “The life of a beautiful soul has been ruined by one man, just because he could.”
My other imprisoned friend, Victor Hugo Tinoco, languishes half a world away from Turkey, in Nicaragua. As a young man he dreamed of becoming a priest, but he finally decided that the best way to serve the oppressed would be to join the revolutionary Sandinista Front. He became an urban guerrilla, then a field commander. After the Sandinistas took power in 1979, he was named Nicaragua’s ambassador to the United Nations. In that post, he fiercely denounced the Contra War that President Ronald Reagan was waging against his government. Later, as deputy foreign minister, he was the chief Sandinista negotiator in talks that led to the end of that war in 1988.
When Victor’s former Sandinista comrade Daniel Ortega emerged as a tyrant years later, my friend broke with him and became an opposition Congressman. Last summer Ortega ordered a breathtaking sweep in which all his critics were arrested. Victor was one of more than 100 who were taken from their homes, jailed in harsh conditions, and sentenced to long prison terms after summary trials. Victor, who is 69, got 13 years. In jail he has reportedly become a spiritual guide and prayer leader for political prisoners.
Frustration is the emotion I feel most when realizing that my gentle and good-hearted friends may spend the rest of their lives in jail. There’s little I or anyone else can do for them. After Osman was convicted, the State Department issued a statement saying it was “deeply troubled and disappointed.” Four days later, however, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told a congressional hearing that he would expedite US arms sales to Turkey because “if we don’t, we know who’s likely to do it in our place.”
We want to ensure that neither Turkey nor Nicaragua emerges as a Russian security partner. Geopolitical concerns like these often push aside concern for individual victims. That may make strategic sense, but it means that Osman and Victor, like other political prisoners around the world, will stay in jail until the ruler who ordered their imprisonment changes his mind or is deposed. Their fate is a chilling reminder that despotic leaders can take power through formally democratic means and then find ways to subvert laws, subjugate the judiciary, and cast enemies into prison. Turkey and Nicaragua will not be the last countries to fall into this abyss.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.