Political prisoner

A political prisoner is someone imprisoned because they have opposed or criticized the government responsible for their imprisonment.

The term is used by persons or groups challenging the legitimacy of the detention of a prisoner. Supporters of the term define a political prisoner as someone who is imprisoned for his or her participation in political activity. If a political offense was not the official reason for the prisoner's detention, the term would imply that the detention was motivated by the prisoner's politics.

Sabino Arana in Larrinaga prison, 1895
Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) founder Sabino Arana in Larrinaga prison, Bilbao, 1895. He'd defended independence for Cuba.
Sahrawi activist Ali Salem Tamek in Ait Melloul prison, Agadir, 2005. He was incarcerated on an accusation of "incitement to trouble the public order"

Various definitions

Some understand the term political prisoner narrowly, equating it with the term prisoner of conscience (POC).

Amnesty International

Amnesty International campaigns for the release of prisoners of conscience, which include both political prisoners as well as those imprisoned for their religious or philosophical beliefs. To reduce controversy, and as a matter of principle, the organization's policy applies only to prisoners who have not committed or advocated violence. Thus, there are political prisoners who do not fit the narrower criteria for POCs. The organisation defines the differences as follows:[1]

AI uses the term "political prisoner" broadly. It does not use it, as some others do, to imply that all such prisoners have a special status or should be released. It uses the term only to define a category of prisoners for whom AI demands a fair and prompt trial.

In AI's usage, the term includes any prisoner whose case has a significant political element: whether the motivation of the prisoner's acts, the acts in themselves, or the motivation of the authorities.

"Political" is used by AI to refer to aspects of human relations related to "politics": the mechanisms of society and civil order, the principles, organization, or conduct of government or public affairs, and the relation of all these to questions of language, ethnic origin, sex or religion, status or influence (among other factors).

The category of political prisoners embraces the category of prisoners of conscience, the only prisoners who AI demands should be immediately and unconditionally released, as well as people who resort to criminal violence for a political motive.

In AI's use of the term, here are some examples of political prisoners:

  • a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime carried out for political motives, such as murder or robbery carried out to support the objectives of an opposition group;
  • a person accused or convicted of an ordinary crime committed in a political context, such as at a demonstration by a trade union or a peasants' organization;
  • a member or suspected member of an armed opposition group who has been charged with treason or "subversion".

Governments often say they have no political prisoners, only prisoners held under the normal criminal law. AI however describes cases like the examples given above as "political" and uses the terms "political trial" and "political imprisonment" when referring to them. But by doing so AI does not oppose the imprisonment, except where it further maintains that the prisoner is a prisoner of conscience, or condemn the trial, except where it concludes that it was unfair.

Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has a much tighter definition:

A person deprived of his or her personal liberty is to be regarded as a 'political prisoner':

  1. if the detention has been imposed in violation of one of the fundamental guarantees set out in the European Convention on Human Rights and its Protocols, in particular freedom of thought, conscience and religion, freedom of expression and information, freedom of assembly and association;
  2. if the detention has been imposed for purely political reasons without connection to any offence;
  3. if, for political motives, the length of the detention or its conditions are clearly out of proportion to the offence the person has been found guilty of or is suspected of;
  4. if, for political motives, he or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons; or,
  5. if the detention is the result of proceedings which were clearly unfair and this appears to be connected with political motives of the authorities.[2]

Other definitions

In the parlance of many political movements that utilize armed resistance, guerrilla warfare, and other forms of political violence, a political prisoner includes people who are imprisoned because they are awaiting trial for, or have been convicted of, actions which states they oppose describe as (accurately or otherwise) terrorism. These movements may consider the actions of political prisoners morally justified against some system of governance, may claim innocence, or have varying understandings of what types of violence are morally and ethically justified. For instance, French anarchist groups typically call the former members of Action Directe held in France political prisoners. While the French government deemed Action Directe illegal, the group fashioned itself as an urban guerilla movement, claiming a legitimate armed struggle. In this sense, "political prisoner" can be used to describe any politically active prisoner who is held in custody for a violent action which supporters deem ethically justified.

Some libertarians (such as those who agree with the arguments of Lysander Spooner[3]) also include all convicted for treason and some convicted of espionage in the category of political prisoners. Currently, there is still much controversy and debate around how to define this term and which cases to include or exclude.[4]

Political prisoners can also be imprisoned with no legal veneer by extrajudicial processes. Some political prisoners need not be imprisoned at all. Supporters of Gedhun Choekyi Nyima in the 11th Panchen Lama controversy have called him a "political prisoner", despite the fact that he is not accused of a political offense. He is held under secluded house arrest.[5]

Political prisoners are also arrested and tried with a veneer of legality where false criminal charges, manufactured evidence, and unfair trials (kangaroo courts, show trials) are used to disguise the fact that an individual is a political prisoner. This is common in situations which may otherwise be decried nationally and internationally as a human rights violation or suppression of a political dissident. A political prisoner can also be someone that has been denied bail unfairly, denied parole when it would reasonably have been given to a prisoner charged with a comparable crime, or special powers may be invoked by the judiciary. Particularly in this latter situation, whether an individual is regarded as a political prisoner may depend upon subjective political perspective or interpretation of the evidence.[6]

Notable groups of political prisoners

Famous historic political prisoners

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at home of Aung San Suu Kyi
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her staff at her home in Yangon
Loujain Alhathloul
Saudi women's rights activist and political prisoner Loujain al-Hathloul

See also


  1. ^ "AI's FOCUS". Amnesty International. Retrieved April 5, 2012.
  2. ^ "The definition of political prisoner". Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. 3 October 2012. Retrieved 2015-11-23.
  3. ^ [1] Lysander Spooner, "The Constitution of No Authority," Vols 1,2, and 6. 1867–1870
  4. ^ Prof. Tatiana Burudjieva. "Who can be defined as political prisoner". Europost.bg. Retrieved 2013-01-25.
  5. ^ "Tibet's missing spiritual guide". BBC News. May 16, 2005. Retrieved May 3, 2010.
  6. ^ "The recognition of political prisoners: essential to democratic and national reconciliation process" (PDF). Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma). November 9, 2011. Retrieved August 20, 2012.
  7. ^ "Pardons for the Wilmington 10". New York Times Sunday Review. December 22, 2012. p. SR10.
  8. ^ "The Wilmington 10: North Carolina Urged to Pardon Civil Rights Activists Falsely Jailed 40 Years Ago". Democracy Now!. Retrieved 2019-05-21.
  9. ^ "Convicts to Australia". Retrieved August 20, 2012.
  10. ^ "Turkey arrests German for spreading Kurdish propaganda: Anadolu". Reuters. 25 July 2018.
  11. ^ "Top 10 Political Prisoners". TIME. 2010-08-15. Retrieved 2011-01-01. Full List FREEDOM FIGHTERS: Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Andrei Sakharov, Vaclav Havel, Akbar Ganji, Benigno Aquino Jr., Ho Chi Minh
  12. ^ Weaver, Mary Anne (2003). Pakistan: In the Shadow of Jihad and Afghanistan. Macmillan Publishers. p. 73. Benazir Bhutto... was under house arrest at the time of her father's death; Zia made her a political prisoner for four years
  13. ^ D'Alessandro, Dave (2014-04-20). "'Hurricane' Carter, boxer and NJ native, dies at 76". nj.com. Retrieved 2019-05-21.
  14. ^ Raab, Selwyn (2014-04-20). "Rubin (Hurricane) Carter, Boxer Found Wrongly Convicted, Dies at 76". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2019-05-21.
  15. ^ Germino, Dante L. (1990). Antonio Gramsci: Architect of a New Politics. Louisiana State University Press. p. 23. Gramsci carried with him from his Sardinian upbringing two qualities that were to enable him to stand... his long years as a political prisoner in Benito Mussolini's Italy
  16. ^ Kim, Jack (2009-08-18). "Former South Korean leader Kim Dae-jung dies". Reuters. Seoul. Retrieved 2011-01-01. The former political prisoner, once sentenced to death under one of the country's early military rulers whom he relentlessly opposed, was elected South Korea's president in December 1997 on his fourth attempt.
  17. ^ "The Struggle Continues". Spin. Vol. 5 no. 11. February 1990. The chimurenga of Thomas Mapfumo has made him both a pop star and political prisoner in Zimbabwe
  18. ^ Boehmer, Elleke (2008). Nelson Mandela: a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  19. ^ Vivian Gornick (2011). Emma Goldman. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-17761-9.
  20. ^ Vellacott, Jo (1980). Bertrand Russell and the Pacifists in the First World War. Brighton: Harvester Press. ISBN 0-85527-454-9.
  21. ^ "Jawaharlal Nehru Biography" Encyclopedia Britannica,

Further reading

  • Whitehorn, Laura. (2003). Fighting to Get Them Out. Social Justice, San Francisco; 2003. Vol. 30, Iss. 2; pg. 51.
  • n.a. 1973. Political Prisoners in South Vietnam. London: Amnesty International Publications.
  • Luz Arce. 2003. The Inferno: A Story of Terror and Survival in Chile. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0-299-19554-6
  • Stuart Christie. 2004. Granny Made Me An Anarchist: General Franco, The Angry Brigade and Me. London: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-5918-1
  • Christina Fink. 2001. Living Silence: Burma Under Military Rule. Bangkok: White Lotus Press and London: Zed Press. (See in particular Chapter 8: Prison: 'Life University' ). In Thailand ISBN 974-7534-68-1, elsewhere ISBN 1-85649-925-1 and ISBN 1-85649-926-X
  • Marek M. Kaminski. 2004. Games Prisoners Play. Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-11721-7 http://webfiles.uci.edu/mkaminsk/www/book.html
  • Ben Kiernan. 2002. The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–1975. Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-09649-6
  • Stephen M. Kohn. 1994. American Political Prisoners. Westport, CT: Praeger. ISBN 0-275-94415-8
  • Barbara Olshansky. 2002. Secret Trials and Executions: Military Tribunals and the Threat to Democracy. New York: Seven Stories Press. ISBN 1-58322-537-4

External links

Andrei Nikolaevich Mironov

Andrei Nikolaevich Mironov (Russian: Андре́й Никола́евич Миро́нов, 31 March 1954, Irkutsk – 24 May 2014, Slovyansk), one of the last soviet political prisoners, was a human rights activist, reporter, fixer, interpreter. The Washington Post described him as "the interpreter who tried to save Russia".

Anti H-Block

Anti H-Block was the political label used in 1981 by supporters of the Irish republican hunger strike who were standing for election in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. "H-Block" was a metonym for the Maze Prison, within whose H-shaped blocks the hunger strike was taking place.

Bobby Sands, the first of these hunger strikers, was nominated in the Westminster April 1981 by-election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone. After his victory and death, the Representation of the People Act was passed to prevent convicted prisoners serving sentences of more than one year from standing for Parliament in the United Kingdom, so Owen Carron, Sands' agent, stood as an "Anti-H-Block Proxy Political Prisoner" and won the seat in the subsequent by-election.

In the Republic of Ireland's general election in June 1981 twelve candidates ran under the Anti H-Block banner, nine of whom were prisoners. Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew won seats in Cavan–Monaghan and Louth respectively, while both Joe McDonnell and Martin Hurson narrowly missed election in Sligo–Leitrim and Longford–Westmeath . Eamonn Sweeney noted that: Altogether, H-Block candidates averaged 15% of the first-preference vote in constituencies they contested. This was a remarkable performance, given that they had been without money, television exposure (thanks to censorship laws), or any sympathetic media. It was probably beyond the wildest dreams of even their director of elections, Daithi O Conaill, who said the day before the election that "if the H-Block prisoner candidates get between 2,500 and 3,000 votes they will have put up a credible performance"

The successes of the Anti H-Block movement galvanised the Irish republican movement, and led to the entry the following year into mainstream electoral politics of Sinn Féin.

Democratic Party (Myanmar)

The Democratic Party (Burmese: ဒီမိုကရက်တစ်ပါတီ, pronounced [dìmòkəɹɛʔtɪʔ pàtì]; abbreviated DP) is a political party in Myanmar (Burma), founded in 1988. It was formally registered in May 2010, with its headquarters in Pazundaung Township, Yangon.The party's chairman is U Thu Wai, a former political prisoner. The party's secretaries, Mya Than Than Nu and Cho Cho Kyaw Nyein, are the daughters of U Nu (former prime minister) and Kyaw Nyein (former deputy prime minister) , all well-known Burmese political leaders in the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League.The party contested in the 2010 general election, winning 3 seats in the State and Regional Hluttaws. The party won only a single seat in the 2015 general election, out of the 52 seats it contested. U Aung Shwe, the party's candidate representing Chan Aye Thar San Township for the Mandalay Region Hluttaw, won a majority of the votes, because that the candidate representing the National League for Democracy was rejected before the election.

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima

Gedhun Choekyi Nyima is the 11th Panchen Lama of Tibetan Buddhism. He was declared the 11th Panchen Lama by the Dalai Lama on 14 May 1995. He was rejected by the search team appointed by the State Council of the People's Republic of China. He was born in Lhari County, Tibet Autonomous Region. After his selection, he was taken into what the PRC government described as protective custody and has not been acknowledged in public since 17 May 1995.

Ion Moraru

Ion Moraru (born 9 March 1929) is a Moldovan activist and author. He was a founder of the anti-Soviet group Sabia Dreptăţii and a political prisoner in the Soviet Union.

Jüri Kukk

Jüri Kukk (May 1, 1940 – March 27, 1981

, Russia) was an Estonian professor of chemistry, a political prisoner, who died in the Soviet labor camp at Vologda after several months of being on hunger strike and psychiatric treatments.Kukk was born in Pärnu. He resigned from the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1978 and was subsequently fired from the post of associate professor of chemistry at Tartu University. He was also refused permission to emigrate.Jüri Kukk was arrested in February 1980 "for distribution of anti-Soviet Propaganda".


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Marie Haydée Beltrán Torres

Marie Haydée Beltrán Torres (born 7 June 1955) is a Puerto Rican nationalist who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the 1977 bombing of the Mobil Oil Building in Manhattan that killed one person and injured several others. Torres was linked by a fingerprint on a job application she filled at the Mobil building just before the bombing. She and her husband, Carlos Torres, were members of the Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional (FALN), which claimed responsibility for the Mobil Oil bombing and numerous others. Supporters of Torres considered her a political prisoner. She was released on April 14, 2009.

Michael Robartes and the Dancer

Michael Robartes and the Dancer is a 1921 book of poems by W. B. Yeats.

It includes the poems:

Michael Robartes and the Dancer

Solomon And The Witch

An Image From A Past Life

Under Saturn

Easter, 1916

Sixteen Dead Men

The Rose-Tree

On A Political Prisoner

The Leaders Of The Crowd

Towards Break Of Day

Demon And Beast

The Second Coming

A Prayer For My Daughter

A Meditation In Time Of War

To Be Carved On A Stone At Thoor Ballylee

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi

Mohammed Ali al-Houthi (Arabic: محمد علي الحوثي‎) (born 1979) is a Yemeni political figure who is former President of the Revolutionary Committee or Revolutionary Council, a body formed by Houthi militants. He was one of the military field commanders who led the group's seizure of the Yemeni capital Sana’a in September 2014, and eventually became the de facto leader of Yemen after the Houthi takeover of the Yemeni government in 2015. He is a cousin of Abdul-Malik Badreddin al-Houthi, the group's leader.According to the 6 February statement by a Houthi representative, the Revolutionary Committee is in charge of governing Yemen and forming a new parliament, which will then appoint a five-member presidential council. However, other reports indicated the committee itself would serve as the presidential council.Al-Houthi has been described as a "former political prisoner".

Riad al-Turk

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Sergei Grigoryants

Sergei Ivanovich Grigoryants (Russian: Серге́й Ива́нович Григорья́нц, Ukrainian: Сергі́й Іва́нович Григорья́нц, born 12 May 1941, Kiev, Ukrainian SSR, Soviet Union) is a Soviet dissident and former political prisoner, journalist, literary critic, chairman of the Glasnost Defense Foundation. He was imprisoned for 10 years in Chistopol jail as a political prisoner for anti-Soviet activities, from 1975 to 1980 and then four more years starting in 1983 on similar charges.

Shock (Fear Factory song)

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The song was featured in the TV series Angel from season 2 episode 10 "Reunion".

Vasile Bătrânac

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Viktoras Petkus

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Wang Bingzhang (dissident)

Wang Bingzhang (Chinese: 王炳章; pinyin: Wáng Bǐngzhāng; born February 6, 1948 ("Yinli" / Chinese Lunar Calendar date was December 30, 1947)) is a political activist and founder of two Chinese pro-democracy movements. He is considered a political prisoner of China.

Wheel of Time (film)

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The film documents the two Kalachakra initiations of 2002, presided over by the fourteenth Dalai Lama. The first, in Bodhgaya India, was disrupted by the Dalai Lama's illness. Later that same year, the event was held again, this time without disruption, in Graz, Austria. The film's first location is the Bodhgaya, the site of the Mahabodhi Temple and the Bodhi tree. Herzog then turns to the pilgrimage at Mount Kailash, after which the film then focuses on the second gathering in Graz.

Herzog includes a personal interview with the Dalai Lama, as well as Tibetan former political prisoner Takna Jigme Zangpo, who served 37 years in a Chinese prison for his support of the International Tibet Independence Movement.

Win Myint

Win Myint (Burmese: ဝင်းမြင့် [wɪ́ɴ mjɪ̰ɴ]; born 8 November 1951) is a Burmese politician and former political prisoner who is serving as the 10th President of Myanmar since 30 March 2018. He was the Speaker of the House of Representatives of Myanmar from 2016 to 2018. He also served as a member of parliament for House of Representatives (Pyithu Hluttaw) from 2012 to 2018. Win Myint is seen as an important ally and placeholder for State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, who is the actual head of government in Myanmar but is constitutionally barred from the presidency.

Yosyf Zisels

Yosyf Zisels, also Josef Zissels (born 2 December 1946 in Tashkent) is a human rights activist and Ukrainian dissident.He was a member of the Ukrainian Helsinki group (UHG), involved in the samizdat movement, human rights activist, prominent activist in the Jewish movement in Ukraine, and a political prisoner.

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