Yesterday, as the world cheered the release of two members of the punk band Pussy Riot from prison in Russia, 450 members of the Muslim Brotherhood went on hunger strike in jails in Egypt. These political prisoners, whose ‘crimes’ include supporting deposed President Mohamed Morsi and taking part in protests calling for his reinstatement, have received rather less global sympathy than Pussy Riot. Even when, last month, 14 women and seven girls were sentenced to 11 years’ imprisonment in Egypt for taking part in an unauthorised pro-Morsi protest, still there was little global outrage. The women and girls (whose punishment has since been reduced to a one-year suspended sentence) were not emblazoned on trendy Westerners’ t-shirts; Madonna didn’t demand their release; Amnesty didn’t pump vast amounts of its resources into calling for their sentences to be squashed, as it has done with Pussy Riot, who have been its main campaigning priority over the past year.
So what does it take for political prisoners to become a cause célèbre among influential Westerners? How can political prisoners overseas win the attention and flattery of human-rights groups, celebs and the concerned commentariat? Here’s an invaluable guide for any locked-up man or woman of conscience who craves the support of human-rights activists.
1) Be white
It’s easier for Western activists to relate to you if you look like they do. White skin, trendy clothes, a fashionable haircut - these can all help ratchet up Western empathy. If you wear a long beard or a head-covering veil, that makes things more complicated, I’m afraid, because no one wants to put an angry Muslim on their t-shirt.
2) Be pretty
This is very important. Why do you think Nadezhda Tolokonnikova is the most tweeted-about and photographed member of Pussy Riot? It’s because she is very attractive. It’s no good being rough and stubbly and dark-skinned; no one wants temporarily to replace their Twitter profile pic with a mug like that. Think about getting a makeover.
3) Be punkish
If you can play guitar in the style of a Western punk band, this will be a real boon, because it means commentators and music hacks of a certain age will write tear-drenched columns about you and about how they always knew punk would change the world. If, however, your main cultural interest is memorising bits of the Koran, then you haven’t a hope in hell, I’m afraid. Imbibe some Ramones instead.