Fact Check: Tom Fitton – No, former President Donald Trump is not ‘officially a political prisoner’
An unprecedented scene unfolded April 4, as former President Donald Trump pleaded not guilty in a New York court to 34 felony criminal charges of falsifying business records.
The charges stem from a hush money payment to adult film actor Stormy Daniels and two other instances in which Trump and his associates supposedly paid people for their silence during the 2016 presidential campaign. Daniels was paid to silence allegations that she had an affair with Trump.
Many on the right decried Trump’s indictment as proof that the United States justice system has been corrupted by politics. Among them was Tom Fitton, president of the conservative organization Judicial Watch.
“It’s a sad day,” Fitton said on Fox Business. “President Trump is officially a political prisoner. Our system is broken. Politics have taken over the justice system — at least in New York City.”
Fitton’s use of the term “political prisoner” caught our attention. Several definitions suggested that being detained or imprisoned was a crucial element to being classified a political prisoner.
We looked at similar claims regarding defendants in the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol. In that case, many had been detained and some were in solitary confinement, but they were not considered political prisoners because although they may have been inspired to participate based on their political beliefs, there was no evidence they were being prosecuted for those beliefs; their charges were related to violent acts and attacks on officers.
Trump was not taken into custody or detained. Hours after pleading not guilty, he boarded a plane to Florida, where he delivered remarks about the indictment at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
We sought input from experts in international law and human rights, and they told us Trump is not a political prisoner. Fitton provided no evidence to support his claim.
Political prisoners are detained based on their political beliefs, activities
Milena Sterio, a law professor at Cleveland State University College of Law, said a common definition is “someone who is imprisoned or detained for their political beliefs, activities, or affiliations, rather than for committing a crime.”
Steve Swerdlow, a lawyer and an associate professor of the practice of human rights at the University of Southern California, said that — like many things in international law — the definition of “political prisoner” isn’t necessarily static.
He pointed to the Council of Europe’s definition of “political prisoner,” which was first written more than 20 years ago. Swerdlow said it is generally considered “customary law” in the U.S. and several other countries.
The first part of that definition says that to be a political prisoner, a person needs to be “deprived of his or her personal liberty.” In other words, the person must be detained or imprisoned.
Experts in the field don’t use the term “political prisoner” until someone is in custody, Swerdlow said.
Former President Donald Trump arrives to speak at his Mar-a-Lago estate April 4, 2023, in Palm Beach, Fla., hours after being arraigned in New York City. (AP)
Political prisoners are usually detained for opposing the government’s policies or for advocating for political change, Sterio said. “They may be imprisoned for participating in protests, expressing dissenting opinions or belonging to opposition parties.”
The definition Swerdlow pointed to included similar elements:
In Trump’s case, the prosecution does not appear “related to the exercise of these fundamental rights,” Swerdlow said, because the case has a factual basis. After hearing the prosecution’s evidence, a New York grand jury of ordinary citizens voted to indict Trump. They had been tasked with deciding whether or not the former president should be formally charged with a crime.
Additionally, Trump wasn’t “imprisoned for participating in political protest or belonging to an opposition party,” Sterio said. He was indicted on specific legal charges related to a payment to Daniels, not because of his political beliefs, she said.
Well-known political prisoners include India’s Mahatma Gandhi, a leader in the nonviolent resistance movement who in the 1920s was imprisoned by the British colonial government and charged with sedition after writing three articles that argued for freedom from British rule.
Sterio also said Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader who was arrested and jailed several times for his peaceful protests against racial discrimination, had been a political prisoner.
Swerdlow cited more than one million Uyghur muslims who have been detained for their religious beliefs and mistreated while incarcerated, including reports of forced sterilization.
Political prisoners are often denied due process
Political prisoners, under the Council of Europe’s definition, are detained in a discriminatory way compared with people who aren’t targeted for their political views or as a result of proceedings that were “clearly unfair.”
“There’s some room for interpretation,” Swerdlow said. “But ‘clearly unfair’ would point to serious defects in the way the trial is being handled.” If a person was denied their right to counsel or the right to know the charges against them, for example, that might indicate someone is a political prisoner, he explained.
There’s no indication that the legal proceedings in Trump’s case are clearly unfair, Swerdlow said.
Being held without trial or due process is another common experience for political prisoners, Sterio said. But Trump “is being afforded full due process,” she said.
If Trump were convicted and given a disproportionately long sentence for his crimes, it might be possible to argue he would be a political prisoner, Swerdlow said.
“This, of course, would have to come at the end of any criminal trial, not at the beginning,” he said.
Political prisoners are also frequently subjected to “torture, mistreatment, and other forms of human rights violations,” Sterio said.
Swerdlow, who advocates for political prisoners, recalled the case of Muhammad Bekjanov, a journalist from Uzbekistan who was imprisoned for 18 years because of his connection to Uzbekistan’s major opposition party.
Bekjanov was tortured, denied a fair trial and mistreated in prison for years, Swerdlow said.
“I think it’s really important when we talk about political prisoners to keep very clearly in our minds the type of horrors that they experience,” Swerdlow said. “We don’t want to diminish the importance of that term.”
Fitton said “President Trump is officially a political prisoner.”
People are free to take issue with the merits of the case against Trump, but experts were clear that the former president does not meet common definitions of a political prisoner.
Trump was not detained. He delivered remarks in Florida just hours after he was arraigned April 4 in New York. He is being given due process. Although there’s not one universally accepted definition of “political prisoner,” human rights and international law experts told PolitiFact that they would not classify Trump a political prisoner. The statement is not accurate. We rate it False.
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