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Political prisoner

According to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, a political prisoner is someone who is in prison because they have opposed or criticized the government of their own country .

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 detention, the term would imply that the detention was motivated by the prisoner's politics.


Various definitions

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

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 also include all convicted for treason and espionage in the category of political prisoners.

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.[2]

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.


  • In the Soviet Union, dubious psychiatric diagnoses were sometimes used to confine political prisoners.
  • In Nazi Germany, "Night and Fog" prisoners were among the first victims of fascist repression.
  • In North Korea, entire families are jailed in large political prison camps if one family member is suspected of anti-government sentiments.[3]
  • Political prisoners sometimes write memoirs of their experiences and resulting insights. See list of memoirs of political prisoners. Some of these memoirs have become important political texts.
  • In Finland, on 30 May 2008, the Tampere District Court sentenced Seppo Lehto, a political activist, to two years and four months imprisonment. Lehto was charged with nine counts of his political opinions, especially gross defamation, inciting ethnic hatred and religious blasphemy against Islam.

Famous historic political prisoners

  • Aung San Suu Kyi led the opposition National League for Democracy which was victorious in 1990 general election. Under jail or house arrest for 15 out of the 21 years from 1990 to 2010.[4]
  • Kim Dae Jung served one term (1976 1979) and in 1980 was exiled to the United States, but returned in 1985 and became President of South Korea in 1998.[5]
  • Bobby Sands was an Irish volunteer of the Provisional Irish Republican Army and elected member of the UK Parliament who died on hunger strike along with several other Irish volunteers while imprisoned in HM Prison Maze. His funeral was attended by 100,000 people [6].
  • Nelson Mandela was arrested for treason in 1956 and acquitted. He left the country and returned, only to be rearrested and imprisoned for a long term (1962 1990) for paramilitary offences & political activism, after which he negotiated the end of Apartheid and went on to become President of South Africa.[4]
  • Thomas Mapfumo was imprisoned without charges in 1979 by the Rhodesian government for his Shona-language music calling for revolution.[7]
  • Benazir Bhutto was a political prisoner for four years under General Zia ul Haq.[8]
  • Antonio Gramsci was a leftist Italian writer and political activist who was jailed and spent 8 years in prison. He was released conditionally due to his health situation and died shortly after.[9]


Further reading

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