A political prisoner is a person held in prison for the crime of opposing the authority governing them. Simply, people imprisoned for criticizing their country’s government. I’m sure there are thousands of nameless political prisoners through history who had the undeniable courage needed to speak out against tyranny. Being forgotten about, we can’t exactly look into their lives. But luckily there are a whole bunch of famous political prisoners who we can look at. People like Nelson Mandela, who went from being a political prisoner to being the first ever president of South-Africa. Most of us are aware of him and Gandhi, but not many others. Here are the 10 most famous political prisoners.


Dilma Rousseff

Dilma Rousseff is actually the current president of Brazil. You’ll soon notice a lot of famous political prisoners go one to become the president of their country once the former government collapses. Dilma Rousseff was a vocal opponent of the military dictatorship which governed Brazilo from 1964 to 1985. She was captured at a rebel hideout after being searched and found carrying a gun. The gun gave her away as a rebel, and therefore an enemy of the state. She was tortured for 22 days and imprisoned a further 3 years. Her imprisonment made her a hero figure in Brazil, propelling through the ranks of national politics.


Emma Goldman

Emma Goldman was a Russian-Born Anarchist who was eventually imprisoned withing America. Moving to America at the age of 16, she grew up to become a respected academic when it came to women’s suffrage and anarchism. Her opponents labelled her as a violent maniac seeking an end to order in western society. So she was a controversial figure. After opposing America’s involvement in the second world war she was imprisoned for 2 years before being deported. This makes me wonder why they didn’t just deport her in the first place. Her political prisoner status afforded her a place among the other great anti-establishment intellectuals of the early 20th century.


Benigno Aquino, Jr.

Benigno Aquino, Jr. led the political opposition to the absolute dictator who ruled in the Philippines during the 1970s. For this, he was captured and imprisoned for 7 long years. After being released from prison, he suffered a heart attack and required immediate medial attention. No local doctor wanted to help him as he was still an enemy of the dictatorial government. So he went to America for the surgery. On returning to the Philippines, he was assassinated. His death changed Philippines politics. It made him one of the world’s most famous political prisoners, and gave his wife the determination to run for president. She actually became president shortly after the fall of the Philippines” dictatorship.


Eugene Victor Debs

Eugene Victor Debs was the elected democrat who switched sides to become the leader of America’s socialist party. An already controversial figure, he led a mass strike in 1894. Known as the Pullman strike, 250 thousand workers refused to work, only to be broken up by the American military. For this, Eugene Victor Debs was sent to prison for 6 months as a previous court case had banned him from engaging in strikes! He later became a political prisoner for his incredibly vocal opposition to America’s involvement in the first world war. He encouraged ordinary Americans to resist being drafted to fight in the war. And the government really wasn’t happy about that.


Sabino Arana

Famous Political Prisoners

Sabino Arana was the leading figure in the movement of Basque nationalism. Basque nationalism was the idea that the Basque provenances in Spain and France should be united as one single independent nation. A number of separatist movements have been born from his influence – none of which successful. Sabino Arana was a conservative, but supported the abolishion of slavery and the freedom of foreign Spanish colonies. For this, support of Cuban independence, he was imprisoned by the Spanish government in 1895. You’ll see in the image above that he wasn’t happy about his imprisonment. Today his work is criticized as he believed in a pure European race, and not race-mixing.


Kim Dae-jung

Kim Dae-jung is known as the Nelson Mandela of Asia as he went from being a political prisoner to holding a position of power. As I said, an awful lot of famous political prisoners go on to become presidents. Kim Dae-jung was arrested in 1976 for his affiliation with anti-government groups and sentenced to five years of house arrest. He was later sentenced to death for similar charges. But the American government intervened, which was enough to lower his sentence to exile to America. Kim Dae-jung eventually returned to South-Korea and won a presidential election in 1998, serving a full term.


Bertrand Russell

Bertrand Russell was a well known British philosopher and political activist. Respected as among the wisest men of his generation, he influenced many fields including computer science, artificial intelligence, and more. He was a known anti-imperialist, which put him at odds with most European governments of his time. He lived almost 100 years, from the 1870s to the 1970s. He saw the world change so much in his lifetime. During the second world war, he encouraged people to refuse military service. Not many were encouraging such at the time, allowing authorities to focus on him. Making an example of him, he was convicted for crimes against the Empire, and sent to prison.


Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi was the leader of a pro-democratic political party in Burma. The party won a landslide victory in the 1990 election. The Burmese military didn’t want her party to gain power, so they forbid the election result and placed Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. This placed her among the world’s most famous political prisoners as she was held for 15 long years. After being released in 2010, she jumped right back into politics. She gained a seat in the Burmese parliament in 2012, and ran for president of Burma in 2015. In April 2016, she became the leader of her country after another landslide electoral victory.


Mahatma Gandhi

Everyone has heard of Mahatma Gandhi. He was the sandal wearing revolutionary who effectively won independence for India. He encouraged resistance from foreign colonial rulers wherever he was. As a result of this he was rendered a political prisoner more than once in both South-Africa and India. He led all kinds of protests and peaceful disruption in both countries, both before and after imprisonment. There isn’t much else to say really – we all know the story of Gandhi – and it’s hard to make a list of famous political prisoners without mentioning him.


Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is the main man of all famous political prisoners. A long time anti-government figure, he was arrested for his connection with terrorist groups. Being spared the death penalty, he was sent to prison. He spent 27 years in prison. Despite this, he never gave up opposition to South-Africa’s apartheid government. After being released from prison, he became the first ever truly democratically elected president of South-Africa in the 1990s. As president, he worked to bring equality to South-Africa. He continued as a political activist up until his death in 2013, receiving a Nobel peace prize and about another 250 honors too.


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