Political prisoner

Political prisoner

A political prisoner is someone held in prison or otherwise detained, perhaps under house arrest, for his or her involvement in political activity.


Some understand the term "political prisoner" narrowly, equating it with the term Prisoner of conscience. Amnesty International campaigns for the release of prisoners of conscience or POCs, 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 is to work only for prisoners who have not committed or advocated violence. Thus there are political prisoners who do not fit the narrower criteria for POCs.

In the parlance of many violent groups and their sympathizers, political prisoner includes persons imprisoned because they await trial for, or have been convicted of, actions usually qualified as terrorism. The assumption is that these actions were morally justified by a legitimate fight against the government that imprisons the said persons, including in some cases democratic governments. For instance, French anarchist groups typically call the former members of Action Directe held in France for murder "political prisoners".

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

In many cases, political prisoners are imprisoned with no legal veneer directly through extrajudicial processes.

However, it also happens that political prisoners are arrested and tried with a veneer of legality, where false criminal charges, manufactured evidence, and unfair 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 and 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.

Governments typically reject assertions that they hold political prisoners. For example, during the Vietnam War, the government of South Vietnam denied that it held any political prisoners, despite the fact that approximately 100,000 civilians were imprisoned as inmates in 41 detention facilities. These included non-combatant members of the National Liberation Front or NLF, including village chiefs, schoolteachers, tax collectors, postmen, medical personnel, as well as many peasants whose relatives were members of the NLF.


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 if one family member is suspected of anti-government sentiments

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.§

Examples of individuals believed (or claiming) to be political prisoners

  • Leonard Peltier - United States. Leonard Peltier (born September 12, 1944) is a Native American activist and member of the American Indian Movement. In 1977 he was convicted and sentenced to two consecutive terms of life imprisonment for the murder of two FBI Agents who died during a 1975 shoot-out on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. There has been considerable debate over Peltier’s guilt and the fairness of his trial. Some supporters and organizations, including Amnesty International, consider him to be a political prisoner.
  • Sanjar Umarov - Uzbekistan. Sanjar Guiess Umarov (born April 7, 1956) is a prominent Uzbek politician and businessman. He is the chairman of Sunshine Uzbekistan, the main party in opposition to president Islom Karimov's authoritarian rule. He was arrested in October 2005 for embezzlement — charges his supporters say were politically motivated — and went on trial in January 2006. He was sentenced to 14 years (later reduced to 10 years) in prison and fined $8 million.
  • Chia Thye Poh - Singapore. He was arrested in 1966 and imprisoned without charge or trial until 1989 upon suspicion that he was a member of the Communist Party of Malaysia and therefore a threat to the security of Singapore. He spent another 3 1/2 years confined on the island of Sentosa, for which he was charged rent and required to procure his own food. The last of the restrictions limiting his civil and political rights were lifted in 1998.
  • Oscar Elías Biscet- Cuba : A Human rights activist sentenced to 25 years imprisonment
  • Gerard Jean-Juste - Haiti: Liberation theologian and prominent member of the Fanmi Lavalas party. Has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International
  • Aung San Suu Kyi - Myanmar: Leader of political party victorious in last Burmese elections, the results of which were ignored by the military government. Ordered under house arrest by Burmese military tribunal.
  • Pasteur Bizimungu - Rwanda
  • Matt Pearce - Hong Kong
  • Phuntsok Nyidron - Tibet
  • Gedhun Choekyi Nyima - Tibet
  • Andrei Ivanţoc - Transnistria: One of four leaders of the pro-Romanian Christian-Democratic People's Party of Moldova who were accused of terrorism
  • Mikhail Trepashkin - Russia: Convicted for "revealing state secrets". Many believe that this may have been related to his investigation of the involvement of the FSB in Russian apartment bombings.
  • Cho Sung-hye - North Korea: Returned to North Korea against her will by China.
  • Akbar Ganji - Iran: Former Revolutionary Guard and journalist imprisoned in Evin Prison since April 22, 2000. He was imprisoned for his participation in the Berlin conference "Iran after the elections" after the Iranian Majlis election in 2000.
  • Adolfo Fernandez Sainz - Cuba: Journalist for the Moscow-based news agency PRIMA. He was arrested on March 20, 2005 as a result of the government’s crackdown on independent journalists. He was accused of giving interviews to foreign radio stations and posting “subversive” articles on the Internet, and sentenced to 15 years in prison under infamous Law 88, better known as the “gag law”.
  • Jennifer Latheef - Maldives: Opposition political activist Jennifer Latheef was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment on October 18, 2003, convicted of "terrorism" for joining a protest in September 2003 against deaths in prison and political repression.
  • Mikhail Marynich - Belarus: On December 30, 2005, the Minsk district court found the former Minister of Foreign Economic Relations and Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary Ambassador of Belarus, Mikhail Marynich, guilty of the misappropriation of office equipment, which the United States Embassy had given to the Belarusian public association “Business Initiative”. He was sentenced to five years detention in a medium-security colony and his property confiscated. His arrest was clearly politically motivated.
  • Soebandrio - Indonesia: Minister of Foreign Affairs of Indonesia under Sukarno. He was detained by Suharto in 1966 after the alleged "communist" coup d'état in 1965 (see 30 September Movement and Transition to the New Order) and sentenced to death by a military tribunal. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but he was released in 1995.
  • Pramoedya Ananta Toer - Indonesia: Prominent leftist writer, detained by Suharto and never brought to trial. Instead he was sent to Buru and released in 1979 but remained under house arrest until 1992.
  • Loncos Pascual Pichún Paillalao and Aniceto Norín Catriman - Chile: Leaders of the Mapuche people
  • Crispin Beltran: Labour organizer and Congressman of the Philippines detained on charges of rebellion.

Famous historic political prisoners

  • Fidel Castro served approximately two years (1953-1955) for his participation in the Attack on Moncada Barracks before launching a successful rebellion in Cuba to become President.
  • Mahatma Gandhi was imprisoned numerous times, in both South Africa and India, for his non-violent political activities.
  • Adolf Hitler served a short term (1924) for leading the Beer Hall Putsch to overthrow the government in Munich, wrote Mein Kampf while in prison, and went on to become Chancellor and Führer of Germany.
  • 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.
  • Nelson Mandela was arrested in 1956 and acquitted. He left the country and returned, only to be rearrested and imprisoned for a long term (1962-1990), after which he negotiated the end of Apartheid and went on to become President of South Africa.
  • Thomas Mapfumo was imprisoned without charges in 1979 by the Rhodesian government for his Shona-language music calling for revolution.
  • Zhang Xueliang served a lengthy sentence (1936-1990) for leading the Xi'an Incident in China in which he temporarily imprisoned Chiang Kai-shek, who, when later released, promptly arrested Zhang and brought him to Taiwan after the fall of the Nationalist government to continue his sentence.
  • Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and his daughter Benazir Bhutto served prison sentences of two and five years respectively under General Zia ul Haq, Mr. Bhutto was later executed.
  • Bobby Sands was a Provisional IRA guerrilla imprisoned in 1977 after a shoot-out with British troops. While in prison he was elected to the British Parliament. He died in 1981 after taking part in a hunger strike for political status. 9 more men died on hungerstrike before political status was reinstated.

List of Tibetan political prisoners

Below are some names of political prisoners among the most well known in Tibet. Some of them died while in prison, or have been released:

See also



  • ^Whitehorn, Laura. (2003). Fighting to Get Them Out. Social Justice, San Francisco; 2003. Vol. 30, Iss. 2; pg. 51.

Further reading

  • 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
  • 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

Additional illustrations are available at the Russian versionПолитический_заключённый

Search another word or see political prisoneron Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature