Thor Halvorssen’s History of Human Rights Activism

It’s a modern part of mythmaking – the hero, traumatized by something that happened to a loved one, takes up a mantle of duty and vows to strike back. It’s the ur-text for Batman…and it describes how Thor Halvorssen, of the Human Rights Foundation, found his calling.

The Human Rights Foundation, based out of New York, is the world’s leading advocacy platform for dissidents and political prisoners, and it’s brought many of them out of their cells, and their house arrests onto the stage at the Oslo Freedom Forum (which the HRF organizes) so that their words can shatter the complacency that allows repressive dictatorships to thrive. Mind, those words also cause big name donors, like Sergey Brin and others to contribute.

Halvorssen has helped dozens of political prisoners reach the light of day, unfettered and unwatched by the governments that held them. It’s his life’s work. It all started with his father, Thor Halvorssen Sr. In the late 1980s, Halvorssen Sr. was fingered as a conspirator in a string of bombs that went off in Caracas. His accuser, who later recanted and said the police had tortured the confession out of him, was the only evidence presented. Halvorssen was jailed without being charged, and he was tortured and held in a prison infamous for its squalor.

His son, Thor Halvorssen Jr, then a college student at Penn State, took to every avenue he could find – Amnesty International, British MPs, even legendary New York attorney Robert Morgenthau. It took the better part of 80 days, but eventually, his father was released to his family.

Halvorssen’s family hasn’t stayed above the strife – his mother was shot protesting against Hugo Chavez, and Halvorsen has received more than his fair share of physical abuse and broken bones standing up for what he believes in.

What he’s done since then is take his fame, and his background in theater, to shape and organization that’s geared for shining a spotlight into the dark recesses of political prisoners, to interest journalists with the prospect of investigating countries where there is no rule of law, only the fiat power of a dictator.