Bret Stephens: Lighting lanterns of liberty in dark corners

Two men, 7,400 miles apart, each recently behind bars. One is a longtime dissident. The other is — or was — an apolitical man who happened to be a convenient target for a regime that likes to take hostages.

Neither knows of the other. They are indissolubly linked.

The first man, José Daniel Ferrer, is founder of the Patriotic Union of Cuba, the largest dissident organization on the island. In 2003 he was sentenced to 25 years in prison for demanding democracy, civil liberties and amnesty. He served eight years in conditions he described, when I met him a few years ago, as a series of “constant terrors.”

Unbowed, he returned to his political work. On Oct. 1, he and several other activists were arrested by Cuban security agents. For weeks his whereabouts were unknown. After his wife was finally allowed a five-minute visit, she reported signs of torture.

Last week, Granma, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, accused the U.S. Embassy in Havana of “orienting and financing the conduct of José Daniel Ferrer, in a clear demonstration of interference in Cuba’s internal affairs and open instigation to violence.” An associate of Ferrer told me he has endured a dramatic physical deterioration and that there are fears for his life; his mentor, Oswaldo Payá, is widely believed to have been assassinated by state agents in a staged accident in 2012.

The second man is a Tehran, Iran-based graphic designer named Ali Alinejad. “On Sept. 24, about seven agents from the intelligence unit of the Revolutionary Guards stormed his home and took him away in blindfold and handcuffs and confiscated his mobile phone and laptop,” his sister, Masih Alinejad, told me recently. “This was done in front of his 11-year old daughter.”

He is now being held without charges in Ward 2A of Evin Prison, where the Islamic Republic isolates, interrogates, torments and sometimes tortures its political prisoners.

He was seized in order to intimidate his sister, a muckraking Iranian journalist who now lives in the U.S. In 2014 she started the online movement My Stealthy Freedom, through which Iranian women posted images of themselves without hijab. It helped inspire some of the most extraordinary acts of courage seen anywhere in years; women prepared to risk imprisonment, and worse, in quiet but unmistakable defiance of the brutal misogyny that defines the Islamic Republic.

In July, Iran’s Revolutionary Court declared the journalist the equivalent of a “hostile government” for her work. In August, six women were sentenced to a combined 109 years in prison for sharing videos connected to her campaign.

And then Iran erupted this month in the largest mass demonstrations since the 2009 Green Movement. The regime is making a point of blaming its troubles on women. “State-owned TV showed a special documentary on the protests to highlight how women were playing a leadership role in the protests and concluded that this is because these women are guided by external forces,” Alinejad tells me.

She offers a telling analogy. “Once the Berlin Wall fell, Communism was finished. Once this wall of black cloth is removed, the Islamic Republic and its discredited political ideology will be gone.”

That’s easier said than done. From Havana to Tehran (and Caracas, Venezuela, to Pyongyang, North Korea), tyrannies have been able to survive decades of isolation and self-inflicted catastrophe with an adroit mix of ideology, corruption, an exit option for the discontented, and ferocious repression of those demanding change.

It also helps that both regimes have prominent apologists abroad — the people who think Cuba’s health care makes up for 60 years of tyranny, or that Iran’s sham elections are an adequate substitute for genuine democracy — along with the much greater number of people who are simply indifferent to what they do.

But tyrannies also have a fatal vulnerability in the face of moral conscience. It’s what gives dissidents their unique, if fragile, power. “I have no fear of being imprisoned,” Alinejad’s brother told her in a stunningly powerful video he recorded shortly before his arrest. “The moment I’m arrested, speak out. ... Be strong and do your work. You are doing the right thing.”

Those are words that Ferrer would instantly recognize as coming from a kindred spirit. Andrei Sakharov, Liu Xiaobo and Nelson Mandela would have recognized them, too. The struggle for freedom is a single struggle. The plight of a dissident in a Cuban dungeon matters not only to Cubans. The fight for women’s rights in Iran matters to anyone who cares for human rights.

As for the U.S., championing dissidents once played a unifying role in a bipartisan foreign policy. Donald Trump’s reluctant but correct decision this week to sign a bill to support Hong Kong’s protesters suggests the tradition isn’t dead. Dissidents deserve that support not just because of who they are, or what they have suffered, or the cause they embody. It’s also because they are, potentially, our most potent weapon in undermining our enemies.

Their cause isn’t, and must never be, lost. On this long weekend, thank Ferrer, the Alinejads and everyone else lighting lanterns of liberty in the world’s dark corners.

Bret Stephens

Bret Stephens is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.