How to become a cause célèbre: a guide for political prisoners

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.

4) Be anti-Putin

It really helps if you’ve been imprisoned by someone whom every right-thinking person in the West, including Stephen Fry, agrees is a grade-A rotter. If, on the other hand, you’re being persecuted by a military regime that the West is kinda supportive of, on the basis that it ousted an Islamist government, then we’ll probably stand back and see how it plays out, to be frank.

5) Be individualists

If you’re part of a tiny clique of protesters who are raging against the ‘automated masses’ and the ‘passivity of the bulk of the population’, to cite Pussy Riot, then you’ll be in favour. Human-rights activists like small groups of enlightened activists, because they remind them so much of themselves. If, on the other hand, your imprisonment followed a mass uprising in which great swathes of people demanded their democratic rights, I’m afraid Madonna won’t be interested. It’s all a bit too warzone-y.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked.

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