Mens et Manus in Prison
ESG Seminar (SP274):

Political Prisoners:
Personalities, Principles, & Politics


Students in this six-unit ESG seminar will examine the backgrounds, motivations, and experiences of political prisoners across the world. ("Political prisoners" in this context includes people who have been pursued, detained, prosecuted, imprisoned, or killed on political grounds.)

Each participant will select a number of individuals to study over the course of the semester. In class, we will look at individual personalities and life stories; the political context and applicable law; and the way cases are treated in the mass media. We will examine the concepts of "political prisoner" and "prisoner of conscience." How are these terms used? What law governs this area and how is it evolving? What similarities and differences can be observed among the cases selected and how can they be explained? To help address these and other questions, we will work to construct a framework of questions that can be used when studying or comparing cases.

The idea for this seminar grew out of the recent work at MIT to increase people's awareness of the case of Lori Berenson, an ESG alumna who is still being held in jail in Peru. Although the seminar is built around academic goals, it also has a more fundamental aim of motivating students to become more actively involved in the protection of human rights around the world.


The seminar will begin with a number of sessions in which we discuss law, politics, psychology, and analysis of mass media in general terms (and with guest speakers).

We will then look at cases, possibly including some of the following:

  • American scholar-dissidents in China (numerous cases in the news this past summer);
  • Mary MacMakin in Kabul (arrested, detained, & deported by the Taliban for giving jobs to Afghan women);
  • Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi imprisoned in her native Burma;
  • Kenneth Gluck's experience in Chechnya (a Harvard alumnus working with Medecins Sans Frontieres, kidnapped because people objected to what he wrote);
  • Fred Cuny also in Chechnya (kidnapped and presumably killed, a CIA agent according to Russian officials);
  • Nicholas Daniloff, a journalist arrested on espionage charges in Moscow in 1986 (the US government obtained his release by giving up an alleged Soviet spy);
  • Jonathan Pollard, imprisoned in the USA for spying for Israel;
  • the US Embassy hostages held in Teheran;
  • native-American activist Leonard Peltier;
  • Oscar Elías Biscet, imprisoned in Cuba for his anti-abortion activism and his criticism of the government;
  • Maria Elena Cruz Varela, Cuban poet who was forced by a mob to swallow her Declaration of Principles demanding freedom and democracy, then imprisoned by the government for spreading "enemy propaganda."
  • Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko, both prisoners of the former apartheid regime in South Africa;
  • Henry Kissinger, former US Secretary of State, now an alleged perpetrator of crimes against humanity and wanted for questioning by governments on two continents;
  • accused murderer Mumia Abu Jamal, for whom a US federal judge has now ordered a new trial; and
  • the case of Lori Berenson, MIT/ESG alumna accused of supporting terrorism and now imprisoned in Peru.

Depending on students' interests, we might also look at historical cases, including Jesus, Socrates, Joan of Arc, Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, Jr.

(Cases are listed here not to set a boundary on the choices and decisions made by students but to illustrate the variety of material that might be discussed.)

We will also work with first-hand accounts as much as possible, e.g., by arranging special guest lectures and presentations.

Last modified on Monday, February 11, 2002 at 12:33:50 PM EST