Political prisoner

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

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.

Internment imprisonment or confinement of groups of people without trial

Internment is the imprisonment of people, commonly in large groups, without charges or intent to file charges, and thus no trial. The term is especially used for the confinement "of enemy citizens in wartime or of terrorism suspects". Thus, while it can simply mean imprisonment, it tends to refer to preventive confinement, rather than confinement after having been convicted of some crime. Use of these terms is subject to debate and political sensitivities.

Politics refers to a set of activities associated with the governance of a country, or an area. It involves making decisions that apply to members of a group.

Various definitions

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

Prisoner of conscience anyone imprisoned because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or political views. It also refers to those who have been imprisoned and/or persecuted for the non-violent expression of their conscientiously held beliefs

Prisoner of conscience (POC) is a term coined by Peter Benenson in a 28 May 1961 article for the London Observer newspaper. Most often associated with the human rights organisation Amnesty International, the term can refer to anyone imprisoned because of their race, sexual orientation, religion, or political views. It also refers to those who have been imprisoned and/or persecuted for the non-violent expression of their conscientiously held beliefs.

Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has defined a political prisoner as:

Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe parliamentary assembly

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) is the parliamentary arm of the Council of Europe, a 47-nation international organisation charged dues to their members, dedicated to upholding human rights, democracy and the rule of law. The Council of Europe is an older and wider circle of nations than the 28-member European Union – it includes, for example, Russia and Turkey among its member states – and oversees the European Court of Human Rights.

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. [1]

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.

Guerrilla warfare form of irregular warfare

Guerrilla warfare is a form of irregular warfare in which a small group of combatants, such as paramilitary personnel, armed civilians, or irregulars use military tactics including ambushes, sabotage, raids, petty warfare, hit-and-run tactics, and mobility, to fight a larger and less-mobile traditional military. Guerrilla groups are a type of violent non-state actor.

Terrorism use of violence and intimidation against civilians in order to further a political goal

Terrorism is, in the broadest sense, the use of intentionally indiscriminate violence as a means to create terror among masses of people; or fear to achieve a religious or political aim. It is used in this regard primarily to refer to violence during peacetime or in context of war against non-combatants. The terms "terrorist" and "terrorism" originated during the French Revolution of the late 18th century but gained mainstream popularity in the 1970s in news reports and books covering the conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Basque Country and Palestine. The increased use of suicide attacks from the 1980s onwards was typified by the September 11 attacks in New York City and Washington, D.C. in 2001.

Anarchism is an anti-authoritarian political philosophy that rejects hierarchies deemed unjust and advocates their replacement with self-managed, self-governed societies based on voluntary, cooperative institutions. These institutions are often described as stateless societies, although several authors have defined them more specifically as distinct institutions based on non-hierarchical or free associations. Anarchism's central disagreement with other ideologies is that it holds the state to be undesirable, unnecessary, and harmful.

Some libertarians (such as those who agree with the arguments of Lysander Spooner [2] ) 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. [3]

Treason Crime against ones sovereign or nation

In law, treason is criminal disloyalty to the state. It is a crime that covers some of the more extreme acts against one's nation or sovereign. This usually includes things such as participating in a war against one's native country, attempting to overthrow its government, spying on its military, its diplomats, or its secret services for a hostile and foreign power, or attempting to kill its head of state. A person who commits treason is known in law as a traitor.

Espionage or spying is the act of obtaining secret or confidential information without the permission of the holder of the information. Spies help agencies uncover secret information. Any individual or spy ring, in the service of a government, company or independent operation, can commit espionage. The practice is clandestine, as it is by definition unwelcome. In some circumstances it may be a legal tool of law enforcement and in others it may be illegal and punishable by law. Espionage is a method of intelligence gathering which includes information gathering from non-disclosed sources.

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. [4]

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. [5]

Notable groups of political prisoners

Famous historic political prisoners

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her staff at her home in Yangon Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton at home of Aung San Suu Kyi.jpg
Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and her staff at her home in Yangon

See also

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  15. 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.
  16. "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
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