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Prisoners of conscience, political prisoners, and imprisoned politicians

This is an article I wrote back in May 2013 with my friend and colleague in Argituz, Sabino Ormazábal. There was to be a debate in the Basque Parliament on the existence or not of political prisoners, which is a term which was then, and still is, used by the independentist left wing to refer to imprisoned members of ETA. Those who opposed -and still oppose- the use of the term “political prisoner” in this context based their argument in the somewhat picturesque notion that there is no such thing as a political prisoner in a democracy.

These are parts of this article:

“It is convenient to have clear definitions: a prisoner of conscience is any person imprisoned because of his or her race, religion, color of skin, language, sexual orientation or convictions, if and only if he or she has not practiced violence nor advocated it. In this definition, motivation is as important as the fact of not having practiced violence nor having defended its use. A political prisoner, on the other hand, is any physical person imprisoned or detained in any other manner, for example under house arrest, because his or her ideas are a challenge or a threat against the established political system, whichever its nature may be. There are therefore prisoners of conscience who are not political prisoners: for example, in the former Soviet Union, people who were not opposed to the regime were imprisoned because of their religious convictions. There are political prisoners who are not prisoners of conscience, because during their opposition to the regime they recurred to violence or advocated it. Nelson Mandela did not personally practice violence, but in a certain phase of his life he advocated it in his political programme, which made him a political prisoner when he was imprisoned, but not a prisoner of conscience. It is also necessary not to confuse the category of political prisoner with that of imprisoned politicians. Radovan Karadžic, however much his motivations were political, was imprisoned due to his serious excesses in the form of human rights abuse and violations committed in the defense (and not against) a determined political status quo from a position of responsibility as part of that very status quo. That made him an imprisoned politician, not a political prisoner.

(…) The term ‘political prisoner’ alludes only to a mere category of prisoners. Nothing else. It is a mere term in the descriptive level. It does not imply any attenuation of responsibility nor moral attenuation whatsoever in terms of judgement. Therefore, possible sympathies, empathies or hate towards such people or their activity have nothing to do with their categorization. However, from confronting sides, some people tend to use the term as an equivalent to some kind of justification or comprehension of whatever crime was committed as something somewhat less bad than ordinary crime, because they tend to think that such political motivation makes such actions noble. In terms of the English philosopher George Edward Moore, this would be a naturalist fallacy in which the idea is to make certain favorable assessments of the facts.

Contrary to this, some people say that there is no room for such a term in a democracy. This is clearly a symptom of shortsightedness, apart from being a mistake in the best of cases. There may be those who deny the existence of political prisoners in a democracy as a form of denying the rights that are inherent to their condition as prisoners to a certain category of prisoners. In this case, this is not a matter of shortsightedness, but a matter of simply refusing to see. To state that the motive of using the term is grounds for illegalizing a political option is to want to champion blindness, apart from violating human rights, and more so when in our environment there is no longer a situation of violence, which we hope is now definitely being overcome”.

I am slowly translating all my articles into English. I shall therefore have this article fully translated into English in due course. Once it is fully translated, I shall be publishing it here. In the meantime, you can read the original article in its Spanish and Basque versions in the links below.

This article was published in

El Correo 11th May 2013

Berria 18th May 2013