Pro bono litigation on behalf of political prisoners

HRF’s Impact Litigation program provides international legal representation to prisoners of conscience whose cases are emblematic examples of the brutality of dictatorship. HRF’s team of international attorneys litigates on behalf of these courageous individuals before international courts and semi-judicial bodies, such as the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.



In democracies, the separation of powers ensures that the judiciary is independent of the legislature and the executive. The judicial process is an essential element in guaranteeing that politicians and governmental offices do not overreach their powers and abuse the fundamental rights of citizens. 

In authoritarian countries, separation of powers does not exist, resulting in a lack of judicial independence. The lack of an independent judiciary that could potentially rule against the government and prevent its abuses is an essential component in the definition of an authoritarian regime. 

Legal proceedings under authoritarian regimes are a mere formality and courts are, in practice, enforcers of discretionary rules used to harass, jail, convict, and impose arbitrary sanctions against critics of the regime. 

Dissidents, journalists, and public intellectuals operating in authoritarian regimes face this reality daily.  They are frequently arrested without charge for short periods of time, or alternatively charged, convicted and imprisoned for long periods of time, depending on the characteristics of the authoritarian regime. 



As dissidents and activists are unable to obtain efficient and unbiased remedy through domestic judicial channels, HRF seeks to help them pursue justice through international semi-judicial bodies.

As part of our Impact Litigation program, HRF’s Center for Law and Democracy submits emblematic cases of arbitrarily imprisoned dissidents and pro-democracy activists to several judicial and semi-judicial international bodies, including the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD), Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and multiple other special procedures under the UN Human Rights Council. 

Litigation before the UNWGAD and other international judicial and semi-judicial bodies addresses the inadequacies of judicial systems in authoritarian regimes, and offers remedies to the victims of corrupt judicial systems through a reputable international semi-judicial body. 

In each case on behalf of a dissident living under an authoritarian regime, there is an opportunity to achieve a positive outcome for the entire country — in the form of international public and legal pressure for greater transparency, and indisputable evidence of violations, a necessary and important component of any potential transitional justice effort.


Contact Us

HRF’s Center for Law and Democracy has a 100% success rate in petitioning the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. If you’d like to suggest a political prisoner case, please contact [email protected].


success rate petitioning the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention