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

"Political" prisoner

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 only applies to 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 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 deem (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 Francemarker 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.

However, political prisoners are 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.


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


There have been hundreds of thousands of political prisoners in Cubamarker since Fidel Castro grabbed power in 1959.

  • Jorge Luis García Pérez (known as Antúnez) was a well-known Afro-Cuban political prisoner until released in 2007 - after 17 years of imprisonment and torture. He has been called Cuba's Nelson Mandela. He has said he continues to fight for the release of other political prisoners.
  • Juan Carlos González Leiva, who is blind, was a political prisoner until released in 2008.
  • Omar Pernet Hernandez was a political prisoner, who was tortured for 21 years.
  • Oscar Elías Biscet- Cubamarker : A Human rights activist sentenced to 25 years imprisonment [6355].

Group of 75

In 2003, Amnesty International declared 75 imprisoned dissidents as prisoners of conscience:


  • Wang Bingzhang A Chinese dissident and founder of the overseas democracy movement.
  • Mohamed Nasheed - Maldivesmarker: The current president of Maldives and founder of the Maldivian Democratic Party. Has been jailed 13 times and spent 6 years in jail for his non-violent political activities against Gayoom's government. During the time he spent in jail, suffered from severe punishments including severe sleep and water deprivation, being fed food with crushed glass and being chained to a chair outside for 12 days.
  • Sanjar Umarov - Uzbekistanmarker: 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 - Singaporemarker: 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 Sentosamarker, 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.
  • Gerard Jean-Juste - Haitimarker: Liberation theologian and prominent member of the Fanmi Lavalas party. Has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International [6356][6357].
  • Aung San Suu Kyi - Burmamarker: 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 - Rwandamarker
  • Alexander Ratiu - Romaniamarker
  • Phuntsok Nyidron - Tibet
  • Gedhun Choekyi Nyima - Tibet
  • Andrei Ivanţoc - Transnistriamarker: One of four leaders of the pro-Romanian Christian-Democratic People's Party of Moldova who were accused of terrorism
  • Mikhail Trepashkin - Russiamarker: 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 Koreamarker: Returned to North Korea against her will by Chinamarker.
  • Akbar Ganji - Iranmarker: Former Revolutionary Guard and journalist imprisoned in Evin Prison since April 22, 2000. He was imprisoned for his participation in the Berlinmarker conference "Iran after the elections" after the Iranian Majlis election in 2000.
  • Adolfo Fernandez Sainz - Cubamarker: Journalist for the Moscowmarker-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 - Maldivesmarker: 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 - Belarusmarker: On December 30, 2005, the Minskmarker 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 Belorussian 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 - Indonesiamarker: 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 - Indonesiamarker: Prominent leftist writer, detained by Suharto and never brought to trial. Instead he was sent to Burumarker and released in 1979 but remained under house arrest until 1992.
  • Mumia Abu Jamal–an African American radical, Mumia Abu Jamal was accused of shooting Philadelphia police officer Daniel Faulkner although he maintains his innocence; Mumia Abu Jamal and his supporters claim he is a political prisoner.
  • The Cuban Five–five Cubans convicted of espionage, a verdict widely disputed by many left-wing activists. 110 Members of Parliament wrote an open letter to the US Attorney General in support of the Five.
  • Loncos Pascual Pichún Paillalao and Aniceto Norín Catriman - Chilemarker: Leaders of the Mapuche people
  • Crispin Beltran: Labour organizer and Congressman of the Philippinesmarker detained on charges of rebellion.
  • Emanuel Zeltser - Belarusmarker: A Russian-American attorney currently held in a KGB-monitored prison in Belarus and subjected to withholding of his vital medications among other alleged abuses.
  • Irek Murtazin- Russia, Kazan On November 26, 2009, Murtazin was found guilty of libel and "instigating hatred and hostility" to an ethnic or social group and sentenced to 1 year, 9 months of hard labor.

Famous historic political prisoners

  • Jorge Luis García Pérez (known as Antúnez) was imprisoned for condemning communism in Cuba and spent 17 years in jail. He has been called Cuba's Nelson Mandela.
  • 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 Putschmarker to overthrow the government in Munich, wrote Mein Kampf while in prison, and went on to become Chancellor and Führer of Germanymarker.
  • 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 Koreamarker in 1998.
  • 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.
  • Thomas Mapfumo was imprisoned without charges in 1979 by the Rhodesian government for his Shona-language music calling for revolution.
  • Andrei Sakharov was imprisoned in the socialist Soviet Union. He won Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Zhang Xueliang served a lengthy sentence (1936-1990) for leading the Xi'an Incident in Chinamarker in which he temporarily imprisoned Chiang Kai-shek, who, when later released, promptly arrested Zhang and brought him to Taiwanmarker 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 and his daughter assassinated.
  • 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 hunger strike before political status was reinstated.
  • 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.

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:

  • Believed by some to be imprisoned:

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

Activist Resource Center

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