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The Brutally Effective Method Of House Arrest

Mir Hossein Musavi (left) and Mehdi Karrubi
Mir Hossein Musavi (left) and Mehdi Karrubi
Imagine that you're a dictator trying to deal with a world-famous dissident or a pesky predecessor who just doesn't feel like dying yet. You could kill them, but that would upset their supporters and anger powerful players on the international stage. You could throw them in a concentration camp, but that might earn you equally bad PR.

It is precisely this sort of political calculation that explains some leaders' preference for a peculiar but long-established form of incarceration: house arrest. Detaining people in their own homes can be a brutally effective way of neutralizing their political activities. It doesn't sound as terrible as locking them up in a jail cell. At least they're at home, right?

As the following examples will show, though, house arrest can be a surprisingly nasty sanction when governments combine it with measures to ensure the detainee's full isolation from the outside world.


One-way became no way as access to Musavi's house was blocked in Tehran.

On February 14, Iranian opposition leaders Mir Hossein Musavi and Medhi Karrubi called for demonstrations in support of the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia. The government responded by detaining the Green Movement luminaries in their homes and cutting them off from all contact with the outside world. (Oddly enough, the two men were incarcerated along with their wives, Zahra Rahnavard and Fatemeh Karrubi.)

All communications between the two couples and the outside world (including their children) were cut off. The security forces even built a gate at the end of Musavi’s one-way street to block any unauthorized contacts.

At first, it seemed as if the tactic might help Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad to neutralize the protesters. One Iranian oppositionist took to the web to criticize fellow regime critics for not making enough of a fuss about the two men's detention.

Last week, the opposition announced that the two men (and, presumably, their spouses as well) have been transferred to a military prison. Some of Karrubi’s neighbors said they saw security forces taking them away. A senior government official has denied that report, saying that both Musavi and Karrubi are at home. But no one knows for sure.


Uladzimer Nyaklyaeu at his campaign headquarters after he was beaten during a rally in Minsk on December 19.

Poet Uladzimir Nyaklyaeu campaigned for the presidency against incumbent Alyaksandr Lukashenka in last year’s disputed Belarusian elections. On the evening of the election, Nyaklyaeu was badly beaten by pro-government goons; the police then arrested him out of the hospital bed where he was trying to recover from his wounds.

Iryna Khalip
The case of journalist Iryna Khalip achieved dubious publicity when the government threatened to seize her son on the grounds that she and her husband -- presidential candidate Andrey Sannikau -- were not capable of caring for the child. Sannikau remains in jail for his role in the postelection protests.

Perhaps because of all the adverse publicity, Lukashenka’s government then decided to move both Nyaklyaeu and Khalip to house arrest, where they have now spent just over a month.

The conditions are Orwellian. Two KGB agents live around the clock in each apartment. Both Nyaklyaeu and Khalip are expressly forbidden to use the phone or the computer. They aren't even allowed to go near the windows, apparently out of the fear that they might communicate with supporters by hand signals.

It may be home, but it sounds like hell.


Myanmar police stand guard by a shed outside opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's house in Yangon.

Perhaps the world's most famous veteran of house arrest is Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel-Peace-Prize winning dissident who has spent 15 of the past 21 years imprisoned in her home on the shore of Yangon’s Insein Lake.

Aung San Suu Kyi
Her last stint in detention, from which she was released late last year, was spent in a "guesthouse" rather than her own home – but that made little difference to the terms of her incarceration.

Just as in years previous, she was held together with her two maids and denied any use of the phone, radio, or television. She spent most of her time in detention reading books or playing the piano. She is said to have avidly consumed periodicals presented to her by visiting dignitaries on the rare occasions she's been allowed to meet them.

It was because of her repeated arrests, and her refusal to leave Burma for fear that she would be denied permission to re-enter the country, that she and her husband, British Burma scholar Michael Aris, barely saw each other in the period between 1989 and his death from prostate cancer 10 years later.

In 2009, an American named John Yettaw provoked the ire of the Burmese government by swimming across the lake and entering her home. The authorities accused her of violating the terms of her house arrest and sentenced her to another term of detention that conveniently ruled her out of running in Burma's general election last year.


Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry at his residence in Islamabad

House arrest has often been a tool of Pakistani political intrigue. The authorities in Islamabad put nuclear engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan under home detention after Western governments revealed evidence linking him with the proliferation of nuclear technology to rogue states like North Korea and Iran.

Then-President Pervez Musharraf put Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry under house arrest in 2007, prompting protests by lawyers that ultimately undermined Musharraf’s own regime.

Cricketer Imran Khan also spent a spell under Musharraf-ordered house arrest.


Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo and his wife, Liu Xia, pose in an undated photo released by his family.

"Can't go out. My whole family are hostages."

That line was written by Liu Xia, the wife of Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning dissident Liu Xiaobo, in a brief Internet chat she conducted with one of her friends just a few weeks ago, according to an account published in "The Washington Post."

She was placed under house arrest in October after the Nobel Prize committee made its announcement. She was allowed to visit her husband not long after that, but since then she's been virtually cut off from the outside world. How she managed to get online for her recent Internet session remains mysterious. What emerges clearly, though, is the sense of desperation.

"I'm crying," she wrote. "Nobody can help me."

Having fallen from grace as a result of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the Chinese Communist Party’s reformist General-Secretary Zhao Ziyang spent the last 16 years of his life in the limbo of house arrest. He did manage to sneak out to play the odd game of golf – and, far more significantly, used his time at home to dictate a memoir that was later smuggled out of the People’s Republic.

Zhao’s secretary, Bao Tong, was also arrested in the wake of Tiananmen and has spent the last 23 years under house arrest. Today he lives in a Beijing apartment under observation by surveillance cameras and round-the-clock guards. Every visitor is carefully noted.

Qazhyghumar Shabdan
Members of China’s Han majority aren’t the only ones who earn the "privilege" of house arrest, though.

On February 15, 2011, the ethnic Kazakh writer Qazhyghumar Shabdan died after spending 10 years under house arrest in his hometown in Western China. That, however, was just a fraction of the four decades he spent under various forms of detention.

Few outsiders may have heard of Shabdan, but his fate remains characteristic of the harsh treatments meted out to those who dare to think differently from the Chinese Communist Party.


Pol Pot, former leader of the Khmer Rouge

Pol Pot, the architect of Cambodia’s 1970s genocide, spent the last years of his life under house arrest at the orders of his own political party, the Khmer Rouge, which was trying to distance itself from his rule.

Still, it was a mild fate for a man who engineered the death of millions.


Nikita Khrushchev

Leonid Brezhnev engineered the removal of Nikita Khrushchev from the pinnacle of Soviet power in 1964. In an earlier era, Khrushchev would have been shot; now, instead, he was banished to his own dacha outside of Moscow, where omnipresent KGB guards kept track of anyone who came near.

Like Zhao Ziyang, however, Khrushchev managed to eke out a kind of sly revenge by using his house arrest to dictate detailed reminiscences that were later smuggled out and published in the West in three fat volumes. The book offered an unflattering inside view of life at the highest levels of Soviet power.

The Soviet media ferociously denounced his memoirs when they appeared in 1970, and Khrushchev was forced to issue a public statement denying their authenticity. As "The New York Times" noted in its obituary, this was the first time that the ex-Soviet leader's name had been mentioned in six years.

Khrushchev died in 1971.

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