Political prisoner

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A political prisoner is someone imprisoned for their political activity. The political offense is not always the official reason for the prisoner's detention.


There is no internationally recognized legal definition of the concept, although numerous similar definitions have been proposed by various organizations and scholars, and there is a general consensus among scholars that "individuals have been sanctioned by legal systems and imprisoned by political regimes not for their violation of codified laws but for their thoughts and ideas that have fundamentally challenged existing power relations". [1] The status of a political prisoner is generally awarded to individuals based on declarations of non-governmental organizations like Amnesty International, on a case-by-case basis. While such status are often widely recognized by the international public opinion, they are often rejected by individual governments accused of holding political prisoners, which tend to deny any bias in their judicial systems. [1] [2]

A more narrowly defined term is prisoner of conscience, popularized by Amnesty International. It describes someone who was prosecuted because of their personal beliefs.

Some prisons, known as political prisons, are focused or even dedicated solely to hosting political prisoners. [3]


Anarchist black cross mural of Irish and Palestinian political prisoners PrisonerSolidarity.jpg
Anarchist black cross mural of Irish and Palestinian political prisoners

The concept of a political prisoner, like many concepts in social sciences, sports numerous definitions, and is undefined in international law and human right treaties. [2] [1] Helen Taylor Greene and Shaun L. Gabbidon in 2009 that "standard legal definitions have remained elusive", but at the same time, observing that there is a general consensus that "individuals have been sanctioned by legal systems and imprisoned by political regimes not for their violation of codified laws but for their thoughts and ideas that have fundamentally challenged existing power relations". [1]

A number of organizations involved in human rights issues, as well as scholars studying them, have developed their own definitions, [2] [1] some of which are presented below.


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. [2] [1] The organisation defines the differences as follows: [4]

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 the following definition:

A person deprived of their 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. [5]

Assistance Association for Political Prisoners

Burmese Assistance Association for Political Prisoners defines a political prisoner as "anyone who is arrested because of [their] perceived or real involvement in or supporting role in opposition movements with peaceful or resistance means." [6]

Congressional-Executive Commission on China

The US Congressional-Executive Commission on China defines a political prisoner broadly as any individual who is detained for exercising “[their] human rights under international law, such as peaceable assembly, freedom of religion, freedom of association, free expression including the freedom to advocate peaceable social or political change, and to criticize government policy or government officials.”. [1]


Steinert (2020)

Christoph Valentin Steinert, who in 2020 reviewed 366 definitions of political prisoners used in (mainly English language) academic literature in 1956 and 2019, argued that any definition of political prisoner needs to avoid focusing on prisoners’ individual motivations and the term "should be exclusively reserved for victims of politically biased trials" (in other words, "victims of state repression"), to avoid delegitimizing the term by diluting it with applications to prisoners of any possibly politically motivated action (which on extreme end of spectrum would include, for example, Ku Klux Klanners, neo-Nazis and jihadist terrorists). He specifically criticizes definitions of political prisoners as "individuals imprisoned for politically motivated actions" or "committing a political offense". He proposed the following definition: [2]

Political prisoners are defined as individuals that are convicted and incarcerated in politically biased trials (or executive decisions in absence of any trials). Trials are deemed politically biased if they are endorsed by the government and (a) lack a domestic legal basis, (b) violate principles of procedural justice, or (c) violate universal human rights. [2]

Steinert noted that his definition does extend to prisoners "imprisoned for nonpolitical identities such as their religious beliefs or their sexual orientations", as well as individuals engaged in violent actions, arguing that the neutral "classification as a political prisoner neither entails an a priori judgment about the moral legitimacy of prisoners’ actions nor does it imply that individuals committed politically motivated crimes". [2]

Other aspects

The purpose of political prisons and of imprisoning dissidents is to demonstrate the strength of the regime to the dissidents. The regime's opponents are isolated and stigmatised, frequently abused and tortured. The goal of such treatment is not just punish those opposing the regime, but to frighten those who consider opposing the regime by demonstrating the power of the regime by sending a clear warning that objecting is not tolerated, and that the regime is well prepared and ready to punish the objectors through creation of total institutions dedicated to hosting political prisoners. [3] [7]

The status of a political prisoner is conferred to one only after their detention. Before that, potential political prisoners may be considered "dissidents, revolutionaries, social reformers, or radical thinkers". The nature of the behavior that leads to political imprisonment is hard to define and can be roughly described as any "activity deemed questionable by ruling elites". [1] Therefore, political prisoners are officially detained and sentenced for multitude of different transgressions, instead of for a single well defined crime. [1] Political prisoners are frequently 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. [2] For example, AAPP states that "the motivation behind the arrest of every individual in AAPP’s database is political, regardless of the laws they have been sentenced under". [6] This is common in situations which may otherwise be decried nationally and internationally as a human rights violation or suppression of a political dissident, and Steinert notes that "objective evidence about politically biased imprisonments is chronically sparse considering that governments face substantial incentives to hide repressive practices". [2] In fact, all governments habitually deny accusations that they imprison any individuals for political activities. [1]

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.[ citation needed ] Political prisoners can also be imprisoned with no legal veneer by extrajudicial processes [ citation needed ] or through executive decisions in absence of any trials [2] or even charges. [1] Some political prisoners need not be imprisoned at all, as they can be subject to prolonged pre-trial detainment instead. Steinert noted that technically, political detainees should be distinguished from political prisoners, but they are often grouped together, and in practical terms, he recommends treating them as special types of political prisoners. [2] Examples of such detainees can include individuals such as the former Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, detained for many years without a trial. [2] Likewise, supporters of Tibetan spiritual leader 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. [8]

The status of a political prisoner can be significant, as such inmates can become the subjects of international advocacy and receive aid from various non-governmental organizations. [2] Criticism from the international public opinion has been shown to facilitate release of political detainees, or reduce their sentences, but is less effective in securing release of already-sentenced individuals. [9] When the status of a prisoner as political is well known, it can be seen as a form of status symbol, some political prisoners purposefully frame themselves as "the imprisoned martyrs and leaders of their movement", and this status can also be seen as "providing a guarantee of their security and of respect for their rights behind the bars". [3]


Ancient Greek philosopher Socrates has been described as perhaps the earliest known political prisoner; imprisoned for allegedly “poisoning” the minds of Grecian youth through his critique of Athenian society and its rulers. [1] Early Christians, including Jesus Christ, and St. Peter, have also been described as such. [7] Another famous historical figure described as a political prisoner is the 15th century French heroine, Joan of Arc, whose final charge of heresy was seen as a legal justification for her real crime of "inconveniencing the elites". [1] [10]

Padraic Kenney noted that "the emergence of modern political prisoners coincides with a fifty-year period (1860s–1910s) during which [modern] political movements matured around the world", also defining such movements as having "clearly articulated political and social programs" which forced the governments to develop a specific response to such movements (a response which often involved incarceration rather than dialogue, particularly under the less liberal regimes). [7]

In some places, political prisoners had their own customs, traditions, and semi-formal organizations and privileges; historically, this has been more common up to around the interwar period, as the many political prisoners came from higher social classes (in particular, nobility), and authorities often treated them better than common criminals. This changed with the emergence of the totalitarian regimes, which attempted to throughout indoctrinate or eliminate any opposition. [3] [7]

In Poland, the concept and even traditions of political prisoners emerged around the second half of the 19th century in the Russian partition. [3] [7]

While the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 is not legally binding, it is generally recognized as "a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations." Of particular relevance to political prisoners are its Articles 5, 6, 9 and 18. The UDHR and the later Helsinki Accords of 1975 have been used by a number of nongovernmental organizations as basis for arguing that some governments are in fact holding political prisoners. [1]

In the United States, the term political prisoner has been used during the mid-20th century civil rights struggle and has been occasionally applied to individuals like Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr., and later used for individuals imprisoned for objecting to US involvement in the Vietnam War. [2] [1]

Political prisoners sometimes write memoirs of their experiences and resulting insights. Some of these memoirs have become important political texts. For example, King's "Letter From a Birmingham City Jail" has been described as "one of the most important historical documents penned by a modern political prisoner". [1]


A number of nongovernmental organizations focuses on advocacy for political prisoners. The most prominent of those is Amnesty International, founded in 1961. [1]

Notable 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

Due to the lack of single, internationally recognized legal definition of a political prisoner, nongovernmental organizations like Amnesty International, aided by legal scholars, determine whether prisoners meet their criteria of political prisoners on a case-by-case basis. [1]

Notable political prisons

The following prisons have been recognized as incarcerating primarily political prisoners, and have therefore been called "political prisons".

See also

Related Research Articles

A dissident is a person who actively challenges an established political or religious system, doctrine, belief, policy, or institution. In a religious context, the word has been used since the 18th century, and in the political sense since the 1920s, coinciding with the rise of totalitarian governments in countries such as Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Saudi Arabia, South Africa under Apartheid, and Iran. In the Western world, there are historical examples of people who have been considered and have considered themselves dissidents, such as the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza. In totalitarian countries, dissidents are often incarcerated without explicit political accusations, or due to infringements of the very same laws they are opposing, or because they are supporting civil liberties such as freedom of speech.

Human rights in Cuba

Human rights in Cuba are under the scrutiny of Western human rights organizations, which accuse the Cuban government of committing systematic human rights abuses against the Cuban people, including arbitrary imprisonment and unfair trials. International human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have drawn attention to the actions of the human rights movement and designated members of it as prisoners of conscience, such as Óscar Elías Biscet. In addition, the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba led by former statesmen Václav Havel of the Czech Republic, José María Aznar of Spain and Patricio Aylwin of Chile was created to support the "civic movement".

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Cuban dissident movement Political movement in Cuba

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Ladies in White is an opposition movement in Cuba founded in 2003 by wives and other female relatives of jailed dissidents and those who have been made to disappear by the Government. The women protest the imprisonments by attending Mass each Sunday wearing white dresses and then silently walking through the streets dressed in white clothing. The color white is chosen to symbolize peace.

Human rights in Syria

The situation for human rights in Syria is considered egregiously poor among international observers. A state of emergency was in effect from 1963 until April 2011, giving security forces sweeping powers of arrest and detention.

Human rights in Ethiopia

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