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Explainer: What Defines A Political Prisoner?

A political prisoner is generally defined as someone imprisoned for his or her political activities, particularly those who oppose or criticize the government of their countries. (file photo)
A political prisoner is generally defined as someone imprisoned for his or her political activities, particularly those who oppose or criticize the government of their countries. (file photo)
The current debate in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly on political prisoners in Azerbaijan has revived interest in what, specifically, constitutes a political prisoner. The special designation is seen as putting extra pressure on national governments to release prisoners whose sentences are seen as politically motivated, biased, or retaliatory in nature.

There is no single standard for what makes a political prisoner, however, and international bodies and state governments are not always in agreement. RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar looks at efforts to build a standard definition.

What is a political prisoner?

There is no universally accepted definition for political prisoners. However, a political prisoner is generally defined as a person who is imprisoned for his or her political activities, particularly those who oppose or criticize the government of their countries.

Azerbaijani blogger Cabbar Savalan
Azerbaijani blogger Cabbar Savalan
In October 2012, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) became the first major intergovernmental organization to approve concrete criteria for what defines a political prisoner. According to PACE guidelines, a person is a political prisoner if he or she meets any one of the following criteria:

  • The detention violates basic guarantees in the European Convention on Human Rights, particularly freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; freedom of expression and information; and freedom of assembly and association.
  • The detention is imposed for purely political reasons.
  • The length or conditions of detention are out of proportion to the offense.
  • He or she is detained in a discriminatory manner as compared to other persons.
  • The detention is the result of judicial proceedings that are clearly unfair and connected with the political motives of authorities.

Who decides who is a political prisoner?

In accordance with the new PACE guidelines, individual country rapporteurs for PACE can make recommendations for who should formally be declared a political prisoner.

Amnesty International also uses the term "political prisoner" to describe any prisoner whose case has a political element -- either in the motivation of the prisoner's act, the act itself, or the motivation of the authorities in their response.

Iranian director Jafar Panahi
Iranian director Jafar Panahi
However, Amnesty does not actively campaign for the release of political prisoners as it does with a second, more narrowly defined, category -- that of prisoners of conscience. (See below) It uses "political prisoner" only to define those prisoners for whom it demands a fair and prompt trial.

Most often, international rights organizations and intergovernmental bodies like the International Red Cross, the United Nations, and the European Union will accept recommendations by trusted local rights groups operating in the country of interest as to who constitutes a political prisoner.

Some international organizations avoid the "political prisoner" designation altogether as insufficiently objective. Human Rights Watch, for example, prefers in most instances to use the alternative term "human rights defender" in its campaigns.

Very rarely, an individual country will invoke its own "political prisoner" designation, although the integrity of such announcements is dubious. For example, the newly elected parliament in Georgia this month released 190 prisoners it said had been jailed under political pretexts by the previous government. The move was widely seen as a gesture of political payback rather than a legitimate amnesty.

Even in countries that reject the existence of political prisoners, there is a clear discrepancy between ordinary criminals and people jailed for crimes seen as political. Prison amnesties rarely extend to prisoners who are believed to have been jailed for political crimes.

What is the difference between a political prisoner and a prisoner of conscience?

According to Amnesty International, prisoners of conscience fall within the "political prisoner" designation but are more rigidly defined.

Prisoners of conscience are those who have been jailed or had their freedom restricted because of their political or religious beliefs, ethnic origin, gender, race, language, economic status, sexual orientation, or other status.

People who have used or advocated violence, even in the defense of their beliefs, cannot be labeled prisoners of conscience. (In some instances, the use of violence does not prevent some prisoners from receiving a political-prisoner designation, although this is a controversial and divisive issue.)

Amnesty demands that all prisoners of conscience should be immediately and unconditionally released. Since its founding in 1961, it has worked on more than 44,000 cases and successfully resolved 40,000 of them.

Current Amnesty prisoners of conscience include former Russian Yukos oil executives Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Platon Lebedev; Russian Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova; Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi; Azerbaijani blogger Cabbar Savalan; and Uzbek human rights defenders Alisher Karamatov and Azam Farmonov.