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6 people who broke the law to change the world


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Nelson Mandela is hands down one of the most important and celebrated figures of our lifetime.

Mandela represents equality, fairness, democracy and freedom in an often unequal, unfair and undemocratic world. But he wasn’t always seen like this…

Twenty-five years ago he was getting his first taste of freedom after being imprisoned for 27 years. Yes, you read that right. For what? What could he have done to get such a long sentence? Well, he stood up for what he believed. In 1942 he joined the African National Congress and fought against apartheid in South Africa, and was imprisoned for sabotage.

Without Nelson Mandela’s commitment to the abolition of apartheid in the face of oppression and imprisonment, the world could be a very different place. It is because of Mandela, and others like him, many more people live a free and fair life.

To honour this day and his bravery and determination, we take a look at 7 other brave and committed people who have been prosecuted or persecuted for standing up for what they believe in:

Liu Xiaobo

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Liu Xiaobo is a Chinese writer, professor, and human rights activist who called for political reforms and the end of communist single-party rule. He is a political prisoner.

Liu was detained in 2008 because of his work with the Charter 08 manifesto, which called for an independent legal system, freedom of association and the end of one-party rule.

He was arrested in 2009 on suspicion of “inciting subversion of state power”. He was sentenced to eleven years’ in jail and two years’ deprivation of political rights.

During his fourth prison term, he was awarded the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize for “his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.”

He is the first Chinese citizen to be awarded a Nobel Prize of any kind while residing in China and is the third person to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize while in prison or detention, after Germany’s Carl von Ossietzky (1935) and Aung San Suu Kyi (1991).

Mohandas Gandhi

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India’s great independence leader first went to prison in 1922 for civil disobedience and sedition after a protest march turned violent, and resulted in the deaths of 22 people. The incident deeply affected Gandhi, who called it a “divine warning’.

He was released from prison after serving 5 years of his 6 year sentence, and went on to become the most famous advocate of peaceful protest and campaigning in the world.

Gandhi famously led Indians in challenging the British-imposed salt tax with the 400 km Dandi Salt March in 1930, for which he was imprisoned for a year without trial, and later lead the Quit India Movement, calling for Britain’s withdrawal.  He was arrested many times but never gave up. An advocate until the end, Gandhi sadly paid for his beliefs with his life when he was assassinated by a militant nationalist in 1948.

Martin Luther King Jr.

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Martin Luther King had a seismic impact on race relations in the United States, as the face of the Civil-Rights movement in the 1950’s.

Through his activism, he played a pivotal role in ending the legal segregation of African-American citizens, as well as the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. King received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, among several other honours.

King was arrested 5 times, and wrote his second most influential speech whilst in prison in 1963 for protesting against the treatment of the black community in Birmingham, Alabama. Letter From Birmingham Jail, which was written on the margins of a newspaper and smuggled out of the prison, defends the strategy of nonviolent resistance to racism, arguing that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws.

Tragically, in 1968 he was assassinated in his hotel at the age of just 39.

Rosa Parks

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Rosa Parks was an African-American Civil Rights activist who became famous when she stood up for what she believed – by sitting down. On the evening of December 1, 1955, Parks was sat on a bus in Alabama, heading home after a long day of work.

During her journey she was asked by a conductor to give up her seat to a white passenger, but she refused, and she was arrested for disobeying an Alabama law requiring black people to relinquish seats to white people when the bus was full.

Her arrest sparked a 381-day boycott of the Montgomery bus system. It also led to a 1956 Supreme Court decision banning segregation on public transportation.

Susan Brownell Anthony

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Or Susan B as some gender studies students know her as, was an American social reformer and feminist who played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement.

Actively involved in social justice from a young age, Anthony and friend Elizabeth Cady Stanton, founded the Women’s Loyal National League, which conducted the largest petition drive in the nation’s history up to that time, collecting nearly 400,000 signatures in support of the abolition of slavery.

In 1866, they initiated the American Equal Rights Association, which campaigned for equal rights for both women and African Americans, and in 1872, Anthony was arrested for voting in her hometown of Rochester, New York, and convicted in a widely publicised trial. Although she refused to pay the fine, the authorities declined to take further action. In 1878, Anthony and Stanton arranged for Congress to be presented with an amendment giving women the right to vote. Popularly known as the Anthony Amendment, it became the Nineteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1920!

Roxana Saberi

Roxana Saberi is an American journalist who was arrested in Iran and detained for 100 days after being falsely accused of espionage. She had been living in Iran for six years, doing research for a book that she hoped would show a more complete and balanced picture of Iranian society. Under pressure and being threatened with a 10-20 year sentence or even execution, Roxana falsely confessed to being a spy. She quickly realised this was a mistake and recanted her confession – knowing this would jeopardise her freedom. Instead of freeing her, her case was sent to trial, sentencing her in eight years of prison.

 “I would rather tell the truth and stay in prison instead of telling lies to be free.”

After her trial, she began her hunger strike – only drinking water with sugar. After two weeks, Roxana’s attorney appealed her conviction. She was released from prison after an appeals court cut her jail term to a two-year suspended sentence.

 “I learned that maybe other people can hurt my body, maybe they could imprison me, but I did not need to fear those who hurt my body, because they could not hurt my soul, unless I let them.”

Is there anyone you’d nominate?! If so let us know in the comments below!

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