On January 18, a long-anticipated day had finally come for Ali Rezaian and his family.
His brother Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post correspondent, was finally freed from Iranian prison -- along with four other Americans as part of a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Iran -- after 18 months of what many felt was an unjust imprisonment. He returned to the United States last Friday.
Jason’s release brought a big victory to the more than 540,000 people from 140 countries who signed Ali’s petition on Change.org. During the last year, this community had grown in numbers to give Ali, his family and Jason’s friends a powerful tool to educate, engage, and mobilize the public in their #FreeJason campaign.
Ali is a California native and biotech consultant who lives in the Bay Area with his wife and son. His life was turned upside down in July 2014 after his brother’s house in Tehran was unexpectedly raided by Iranian security forces.
Jason and his wife, Yegi, were detained on unspecified charges. Yegi was released shortly thereafter, but Jason was subjected to months of solitary confinement, which took a mental and physical toll on him. Jason was eventually a taken to a secret trial that led to his conviction of espionage charges.
Ali has been a tireless campaigner for his brother’s release -- traveling around the country for meetings and participating in a countless number of media interviews. I’ve had the privilege to support him through his campaign on Change.org over the last year. It has been truly remarkable to see him put his life on hold to fight every day -- doing whatever was necessary -- to secure his brother’s freedom.
As public interest around Jason’s case grew, Ali’s petition was the central organizing place for any party who was advocating on Jason’s behalf, whether that was The Washington Post, press freedom organizations, journalists, or everyday people who simply cared about Jason and his family. It served an important public engagement function for Ali, allowing people from around the world to raise their voice for #FreeJason.
Ali’s petition was also often used by those working to keep the public attention on Jason’s case -- whether in the news or behind closed doors. The #FreeJason campaign on Change.org launched in more than eight countries and helped millions of people around the world to demonstrate the public’s commitment to Jason’s release.
This campaign is one of many on Change.org that have been started by individuals, family members or organizations who are fighting for journalists and political prisoners. The platform has fostered awareness building about the plight of innocent individuals and mobilized global audiences toward action. There is power in numbers, and large communities of individuals have shown that they can be effective in bringing about the change that they seek.
Over the years, a handful of these petitions have achieved victory, including:
- A petition started by the son of Kenneth Bae, who was imprisoned for two years in a North Korean labor camp, mobilized more than 177,000 people to help secure his father’s release.
- The honorable Archbishop Desmond Tutu launched a campaign to free Nobel Peace Prize Winner Liu Xiaobo and wife Liu Xia from Chinese prison. His campaign garnered the support of nearly half a million people, leading to their release.
- After Australian Al-Jazeera journalist Peter Greste was imprisoned in Cairo, Dr. Mahmoud Hegazy of the Egyptian Australian Society led a campaign for his freedom. After more than 87,000 signatures and 400 days in jail, Peter was released.
Recently, we’ve seen other campaigns take off that call for press freedom and the release of journalists and advocates.
- Over 127,000 people worldwide have joined the effort to free Hyeon Soo Lim, a Korean-Canadian pastor from Toronto currently serving a life sentence of hard labor in North Korea.
- Nearly 90,000 people have signed a petition launched by The Committee to Protect Journalists (in partnership with VICE News) to free Iraqi journalist Mohammed Ismael Rasool, who was detained in early August while reporting in Turkey.
- More than 120,000 people have signed on to a petition to free Saudi youth activist Baqir al-Nimr, who is on death row in Saudi Arabia after being arrested at the age of 17 for a “long list of crimes” that many believe are unjustified.
More and more, individuals and organizations are turning to Change.org to broaden awareness, build support and drive a public conversation about imprisoned individuals -- whether that’s a loved one, a co-worker, or a stranger in need. Petitions continue to create a launching pad for various freedom campaigns and function as central destinations for these efforts. That’s largely thanks to you -- your signature and other actions have played a critical role in helping these victories happen.
2016 has kicked off as a great year for these efforts, with Rasool recently being released in Turkey (though still facing charges) and Jason now back in the U.S. Unfortunately, countless others remain detained against their will, so I encourage you to take a minute to lend your voice once again to the ongoing campaigns to help ensure that others can soon join Rasool and Jason in their newfound freedom.
Justin Lyons is an Associate Campaigns Director at Change.org.
Inspired by this victory?