Glossary: Political Prisoners

Image courtesy of ActNow Australia

Image courtesy of ActNow Australia

The term “political prisoner” is not easy to define. The category is contested, and there is a lack of global consensus about who qualifies as a political prisoner. For some, the term may convey a special status which necessitates immediate release. For others, political prisoners may include those who have undertaken acts of treason or espionage, which warrant harsh punishment. Still others take the definition to include acts of violence committed for political reasons or in support of a cause. The conflicted nature of issues surrounding political prisoners is represented in the old adage: “One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter.” Citizens convicted of participating in armed resistance may be designated as political prisoners by comrades and supporters, but considered criminals by the government.

Amnesty International, a leading human rights organization, uses the term “prisoners of conscience” and its definition is:

 people who have been jailed because of their political, religious or other conscientiously-held beliefs, ethnic origin, sex, color, language, national or social origin, economic status, birth, sexual orientation or other status, provided that they have neither used nor advocated violence.”

Some have challenged this definition for being too limited, as it may not include some of the world’s most famous political prisoners. For example, Nelson Mandela was held as a political prisoner in South Africa for nearly 30 years; however, the anti-apartheid movement in which he participated was not always non-violent. Under Amnesty International’s definition, Mandela may not have qualified as a “prisoner of consciousness,” despite international recognition that his incarceration was politically motivated.

Free Romain "Chip" Fitzgerald Poster. Image courtesy of

Free Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald Poster. Image courtesy of

During the month of August, a time known as Black August, people remember political prisoners and debates rage about this controversial term. In the U.S., the longest held political prisoner is believed to be Romaine “Chip” Fitzgerald, a member of the Black Panther Party. Fitzgerald is currently incarcerated in Fern Valley State Prison in California, where he has been since 1969. His petitions for parole have been repeatedly denied. During his last parole hearing, in July 2008, Fitzgerald was vigorously challenged by a board member about his political views, past and present, and summarily denied. You can learn more about the case at

by Joanne Bermudez

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