Political Prisoners

Prisoner of the Year is one of the world’s most unwanted distinctions. But unpleasant business though it is to get your name in the running for it, there is no lack of candidates for the award.

The Prisoner is selected each year by the International Assembly of Amnesty (in 1968, as it was Human Rights Year, they chose three), from all those all over the world who are “prisoners of conscience”—in other words people who are imprisoned or detained because of political, religious or conscientious opinions or by reason of their colour, race or language.

It is clear that this gives a pretty wide field of selection. Political prisoners exist in all parts of the world from Peru to Malaysia. Leaving aside the obvious places like Russia, we have Burma where hundreds have been held without trial since the coup d’etat in 1962, India which has some two hundred detainees under the Defence of India Rules and, on the other side of that particular conflict, Pakistan which holds several hundred under the Defence of Pakistan Rules. Some of the prisoners in Pakistan have been inside for over ten years.

Among this unhappy mass there are many cases which are outstanding for their harshness and cynicism. In Algeria Bachir Hadj Ali, once secretary of the Algerian Communist Party, is in very bad health after being tortured. He was arrested in 1965. The Cuban government have not tried David Salvador, but he is to serve a thirty year stretch .for his part in the July 26 “Labour Wing”. Ajoy Bhattacharya and Santosh Banerjee have both been held without trial by the Pakistani authorities since 1958.

Political prisoners exist under all sorts of governments. States which profess to be “communist” have them and so do those which claim to be “anti-communist”. Many of the new independent states, now governed by parties which once said they were fighting against the colonial powers for their freedom, are now showing that the word, must not be interpreted too literally. Malawi, Uganda and Indonesia are only three examples of this. Another is Kenya, where the government of Jomo Kenyatta continues to hold, without trial, the Somali politician Yasin Mohamed Ahden, who was actually arrested by the British before Kenya became independent and “free”.

Political prisoners have committed no crime in the usually accepted sense of an assault upon property or people, although there have been famous cases in which they have been charged with “crimes against the people” which, the prosecution has alleged, were intended to have horrific results. (Amnesty refuses to adopt prisoners who advocate acts of violence). Their offence is in either refusing to recognise the authority of the state (like conscientious objectors in countries which insist on compulsory military service) or in being a possible threat to a government’s political hold upon a country.

Thus many political prisoners are themselves politicians— like Patrick Peter Ooko in Kenya, and Chibingwe in Malawi. Perhaps, if they were out of prison and in power, they would themselves put away their opponents. Political imprisonment is in fact a sort of apprenticeship to power and there is nothing new in the prisoner turning gaoler. Kenyatta and Banda are only two who have done this.

There are other prisoners who are not politicians. Many obscure people are suffering for the offence of refusing to conform to a political dictatorship. East Germany imprisons anyone discovered helping people to leave the country illegally. Tunisia, after sentencing medical student Ben Jennet to a savage twenty year stretch, has followed this up with a 14 year sentence on Brahim Razgallah for protesting against it.

All of this may seem on the face of it to be worth protesting about. Amnesty is one of the organisations which concern themselves with this, adopting prisoners, agitating for their release and so on. Amnesty says that it works for “freedom of opinion and religion all over the world”, which brings us down onto the old, familiar grounds of idealism which, however sincere it may be, tries to obscure the basic, material realities of the world. Idealism offers no more than a collection of sickening stories, a desire to do something about them—but a stifling bewilderment about any effective solution.

To look at political imprisonment on the face of it is not enough. What are the basic realities? We might start at the fact that political prisoners are international. Even Britain, which has as much political freedom as any country, roped in the Fascists in 1939—when they were protesting their eagerness to help the war effort of British capitalism—and held them without trial. Mistakenly or not, the government regarded men like Mosley as a political threat.

This suggests that the conditions which cause prisoners of conscience are also international. The world today is dominated by property society—in most cases by its most highly developed form of capitalism. Property society is an affair of privilege, of a minority holding a higher economic and social position than the rest and asserting their superior standing through a coercive State machine.

Whoever controls that state controls power. That is what capitalist politics are all about. In some cases control can be won only through a popular vote, which means that politicians have to try to beat their opponents by means other than imprisonment (by Enoch Powell, for example, menacing Heath with his appeal to the rudest of mass deception). In some—but not all—of such countries there are other legal rights, existing alongside the popular franchise, which make political imprisonment rather difficult for a government to pull off.

But there are other countries which are in a different case. In some—for example South Africa and Rhodesia— the electoral system is rigged with the result that a crushing majority of those with the vote are in favour of the suppression of political freedom. In others there are either no elections, or elections in which effectively only one party can put up candidates. In such countries the acquiescence, apathy or support of the majority enable the government to restrict or even crush the opposition by the simple method of putting away anyone who speaks up against it.

Let us be clear that no one suffering political imprisonment today is a threat to the fundamentals of property society. They are in gaol not because they protest against capitalism but because they oppose the particular clique which at any one time holds power over the system. Some are actually former members of a government which now imprisons them—like Grace Ibingira of Uganda, who was once President Obote’s right hand man. Others are religious, like Bishop James Walsh, a Roman Catholic who has been serving a 20 year sentence in China since 1958. Some, like Amnesty Prisoner of the Year Nina Karsow (now free), are patriots; ”… I know for certain,” she wrote to her mother, “that our own country is not just a place on a map. but that it lives within each of us.”

What this means is that if, by some miracle, every political prisoner were suddenly released the whole rotten business would soon start all over again for the simple reason that the cause of it would still be there. There can be only one guarantee for the protection of human liberty and dignity and that is something beyond the horizons of all the individuals and organisations which agitate on behalf of the prisoners. The guarantee is to end the social system which by its very nature, and in fields other than the political, denies freedom and dignity and to replace it with one which treats them as its first concern.

If we say, then, that Socialism will be the society of freedom which will not know such disfigurements as political prisoners we are inviting an obvious question. Why are there no socialists in prison for their opinions? The answer is equally obvious. At the moment Socialism is not a threat to worry a capitalist state. But the socialist movement grows through the developing consciousness among workers—and remember that no government can impose its will upon a consciously unwilling majority. So when Socialism is a threat, and the ruling class would like to do something about it—it will be too late.


(We are grateful for the help which Amnesty gave in the preparation of this article.)