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Top 10 Inspiring Political Prisoners

VO: Rebecca Brayton
Sometimes your beliefs can get you in trouble, and sometimes – when your beliefs go against your government – they can land you behind bars. That’s what happened to these ten people: they stood up for what they believed was right despite the consequences, and it had a significant impact on the rest of their lives. In honor of the effective end of Apartheid in South Africa with the repeal of the Population Registration Act on June 17th, 1991, thanks to efforts by anti-Apartheid activist Nelson Mandela, counts down our picks for the top 10 most inspiring political prisoners in history.

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Top 10 Inspiring Political Prisoners

Criticizing governments landed them behind bars. Welcome to, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 most inspiring political prisoners.

#10 – Hồ Chí Minh

This communist leader was a force in Vietnam’s nationalist campaign, battling various powers to lead his population to independence. While his visit to China was meant to mobilize support against French colonists, it cost him 18 months in jail, during which he wrote “Notebook from Prison.” After returning to Vietnam in 1943, Hồ helped liberate the north from the French and established the communist-led Democratic Republic of Vietnam.

#9 – Akbar Ganji

Labeled “Iran’s preeminent political dissident,” Ganji’s disillusionment drove him from the Revolutionary Guard to investigative journalism, where he famously reported on Iran’s Chain Murders. His allegations that senior government officials had covertly assassinated dissidents and his participation in a supposedly “anti-Iran” conference got him arrested in 2000, and he spent the next six years in prison hunger striking, allegedly being tortured, and writing a proposal for a democratic Iran.

#8 – Mordechai Vanunu

After working as a nuclear technician, Vanunu’s left-wing ideals compelled him to expose Israel’s nuclear program. Before the story went public in 1986, he was tricked by a friendly female Mossad agent, and arrested for treason and espionage. His secret trial got him jailed for 18 years, 11 of which were spent in solitary confinement. Since his 2004 release, he’s lived under restrictions and has been arrested numerous times.

#7 – Václav Havel

Once his acclaimed writing was banned in his native Czechoslovakia during 1968’s suppressive Prague Spring, this anti-communist dissident’s politicization increased. He helped create the Charter 77 manifesto and was behind bars often, with his longest stint documented in “Letters to Olga.” After his release in 1983, Havel led his country through the Velvet Revolution, and was elected president of Czechoslovakia, proving the potential of art in influencing political dialogue.

#6 – Andrei Sakharov

Called the Father of the Soviet H-Bomb, this nuclear physicist created the USSR’s Third Idea. Eventually, he publicly expressed unease about the ethical repercussions of his work and became a civil rights leader, which won him 1975’s Nobel Peace Prize. Ultimately, his protest against the Soviets’ Afghanistan invasion got him arrested in 1980, and he was forced into exile for almost seven years – though he never stopped fighting Soviet repression.

#5 – Martin Luther King, Jr.

This pastor and activist was an iconic figure in the American fight for civil rights, and that reputation got him sent to jail almost 30 times before his assassination. While he was incarcerated for leading large demonstrations in Alabama, King reestablished his belief in peaceful protest and nonviolence in 1963’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” The next year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

#4 – Liu Xiaobo

The Chinese fight for human rights is another furious battle, and Liu one of its strongest dissidents. Demanding sweeping change and an end to communist rule, he helped build the Charter 08 manifesto. That project led to his 11-year jail sentence, during which he was awarded 2010’s Nobel Peace Prize. Because Liu couldn’t attend, his statement about imprisonment, entitled “I Have No Enemies,” was read at the ceremony.

#3 – Aung San Suu Kyi

After founding Burma’s National League for Democracy in 1988, Suu Kyi was told to leave the country or face house arrest: she spent the next 21 years in and out of detention. The ruling military junta refused to recognize the results of the 1990 election where her party won a majority; but today this Nobel Peace Prize laureate is the official leader of the opposition following her 2010 release.

#2 – Mohandas Gandhi

Gandhi worked for equality and against discrimination. Whether he was battling the substandard treatment of Indians in South Africa or fighting for Indian independence from Britain, Gandhi was using and developing groundbreaking nonviolent methods of civil disobedience – or Satyagraha. While he was jailed many times for his crusades against British imperialism, he did succeed in leading India to independence before being killed by a fanatic in 1948.

#1 – Nelson Mandela

His life’s work was to end racial segregation; but it got him arrested, charged with sabotage, treason, and violent conspiracy during the infamous Rivonia Trial and sentenced to life in prison. During his 27-year incarceration, Mandela became an international symbol of anti-apartheid resistance as he refused freedom in favor of his beliefs. He was finally released at age 72 in 1990, after which he became the country’s first black president.

There have been so many inspiring people who’ve been jailed for standing up for their beliefs. Who do you think are the most inspiring political prisoners? For more informative top 10s, be sure to subscribe to

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