We might be used to living in a democratic system where political dissent can be a valid contribution to society, but not everyone has been so lucky in their lives. Some of the most famous politicians and thinkers in recent history have been the victims of persecution and imprisonment for their political beliefs and activities. We list ten of the most legendary political prisoners of our time.
10. Antonio Gramsci
Antonio Gramsci helped found the Communist Party of Italian and is recognized for his contributions to the philosophy of Marxism. He was active in the fight against Fascism in Italy, calling for a united front to restore democracy in his country. In 1926 the Fascist government used an attempt on Mussolini’s life as an excuse to crack down on dissent, ignoring Gramsci’s immunity as an elected parliamentarian and arresting him. At his trial, the prosecutor stated his intention to stop Gramsci’s brain “from functioning” and he was sentenced to five years imprisonment on a remote island — a sentence extended to 20 years the following year. Gramsci was in poor health, and his solitary cell and poor medical attention exacerbated his condition, such that in 1934 he was released. He died three years later, aged 46.
9. Thomas Mapfumo
When Thomas Mapfumo first started singing and playing music in his native tradition he was making a political statement against the white rulers of Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe). His songs, in the Shona language of his people, called for violent revolution; but, not understanding the language, the government did not fully realize his influence until 1979, when he was imprisoned without charges and his music was banned. After Mapfumo had spent three months in a grueling prison camp, public protests secured his release. He now lives in the United States, where he is active in opposing the Zimbabwean government of Robert Mugabe.
8. Mordechai Vanunu
Mordechai Vanunu was a nuclear technician in Israel, but his growing opposition to weapons of mass destruction led him, in 1986, to inform the British press of the Israeli program to develop nuclear weapons. Vanunu was then kidnapped by Mossad and convicted in Israel in a closed-doors trial. He was incarcerated for 18 years, with a full 11 of those years spent in solitary confinement. During his time in prison he would not speak with guards and refused psychiatric treatment. In 2004 he was released, but he still lives his life under severe restrictions and has been repeatedly arrested for attempts to leave Israel and for speaking to journalists.
7. Bobby Sands
Bobby Sands was a member of the Provisional IRA who was convicted of various gun-related offenses in the 1970s. His most famous period of incarceration began in 1977, when he was sentenced to 14 years in the Maze Prison. At the time, Republican prisoners had been denied “Special Category” status, which they believed they were entitled to as political prisoners, arrested for fighting against British rule in Northern Ireland. Sands took part in a variety of protests designed to regain this status. In 1981 he was elected as a Member of Parliament in a by-election shortly after beginning a hunger strike, seeking to gain publicity and status as political prisoners for incarcerated IRA members. After 66 days on hunger strike, Sands died of starvation at the age of 27. Nine other Republican prisoners also died, sparking mixed reactions and protests throughout Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and the world.
6. Mahatma Gandhi
Mahatma Gandhi suffered many periods of imprisonment throughout the course of his life of non-violent activism — from his time spent in South Africa in his youth, where he fought against the apartheid treatment of Indians, to his well-known campaign against British Rule in India. Gandhi was utterly committed to non-violence, and despite his calling off of mass demonstrations on no less than three occasions due to worries about violence, the British administration could not countenance his activities. In 1922 he was arrested in India for sedition against the British Crown. He was sentenced to six years in prison, but was released in 1924 due to his need for an operation for appendicitis.
5. Liu Xiaobo
China is known for its abuses of human rights, and writer and activist Liu Xiaobo’s experiences epitomize the country's lack of regard for the fundamental dignity of all human beings. As President of the PEN Centre from 2003 to 2007 — a body funded by the US Congress — he called on the Chinese authorities to institute democratic reforms and the end of one-party communist rule. In 2008 he was detained, before being officially arrested for “inciting subversion of state power” in 2009 and later sentenced to 11 years in prison. In 2010 he became the first Chinese citizen living in China to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He is still incarcerated.
4. Benazir Bhutto
As the first woman elected to lead a Muslim State, Benazir Bhutto had already entered the history books before her assassination in 2007. She was twice President of Pakistan, from 1988 to 1990 and 1993 to 1996. Her father had also been Prime Minister but he was overthrown by the military in 1977. Benazir Bhutto was kept under house arrest for a year and a half, and after her father was hanged in 1979 she was repeatedly arrested and eventually placed in solitary confinement in 1981. Her cell was like an oven in the desert, filled with biting insects, and after six months she was hospitalized, before eventually being placed under house arrest once more. In 1984 she was permitted to travel abroad for medical treatment, the first of her periods of exile from Pakistan.
3. Leon Trotsky
One of the most famous names in Marxism, Leon Trotsky endured several periods of detention for his beliefs and activism. He was first exposed to Marxism in 1896, and although initially opposed to it eventually became a leader within the Bolshevik movement. In 1898 he was arrested and spent two years in prison before finally being tried; he was sentenced to a further four years in the wilds of Siberia. Trotsky escaped in 1902 (taking with him the name that he is remembered by from a jailer in Odessa) and fled to London where he wrote and remained politically active. He returned to Russia in 1905 and was arrested, along with other Soviet leaders, in 1906, whereupon he was sentenced to deportation. In 1917, the Tsar was overthrown in the February Revolution, but Trotsky was detained by the British for a month as he attempted to journey home. From 1917 to 1927 he worked with the Communist government in Russia, but internal party politics led to his expulsion and exile, and in 1940 he was assassinated by the Stalinists with an ice axe in Mexico.
2. Aung San Suu Kyi
Between 1989 and 2010 Aung San Suu Kyi spent almost 15 years under house arrest in Burma. As a pro-democracy activist and politician, she was considered a threat to the military junta in power, and so she was locked away in her home, denied visitors and her freedom. She saw her husband only five times between 1989 and 1999, when he died, and spent many days without electricity. In 1990 her party (the National League for Democracy) were victorious in the elections, winning 81% of parliamentary seats and 59% of the popular vote. However, she was under house arrest at the time and was not released; and the military rejected the results and remained in power. She still lives in Burma, despite the danger that she will be arrested once again.
1. Nelson Mandela
Perhaps the world’s most famous political prisoner, Nelson Mandela’s activism against South African apartheid led to a sentence of life imprisonment in 1964. During his incarceration he performed hard labor and was only allowed limited contact with the outside world. After 27 years of imprisonment, during which time his reputation steadily grew, he was released in 1990 and went on to negotiate an end to apartheid. He served a five-year presidency from 1994 to 1999, and left his militant origins behind to prioritize reconciliation and measures to tackle poverty and inequality.