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Some examples of politicians who spent a long time behind bars before coming to power include Vladimir Lenin, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi. It therefore seems like a risky move for an authoritarian regime to keep their opponents alive in prison, rather than silencing them forever as soon as they come to prominence.

So why does e.g. Russia bother keeping Navalny alive in prison? They did try to assassinate him covertly previously but now that he’s in prison, why don’t they finish the job? What’s the incentive for keeping people like him alive?

2024 update: RIP Alexei Navalny :-(

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  • 2
    Because authoritarian ≠ totalitarian?
    – Valorum
    Jun 8, 2022 at 9:31
  • 3
    "They did try to assassinate him covertly" - is there any proof of it? Jan 10 at 13:27
  • 2
    "On Feb. 16, 2024, in penal colony number 3, convict Alexei Navalny felt unwell after a walk, almost immediately losing consciousness. ... All necessary resuscitation measures were carried out, which did not yield positive results. Doctors of the ambulance stated the death of the convict." (Reuters)
    – user103496
    Feb 16 at 12:01
  • 1
    "why don’t they finish the job?" They were probably asking themselves the same and came to the conclusion that finishing "the job" is in their best interests. Feb 16 at 16:17
  • 1
    Morsi also died in prison FWTW. His detention conditions can be easily described as medieval, if the UN report is to be believed news.un.org/en/story/2019/11/1050941 Feb 16 at 18:14

9 Answers 9

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For different reasons, some of which are implicitly absent from your question:

  • First you are looking at "survivor bias", where the given outcome - loss of power to imprisonee - happened, rather than the regime successfully keeping an opponent bottled up. I.e. how many regime opponents died or became irrelevant in prison, making this policy a success?

  • Second, it is not clear in those examples how many of them, if any, resulted in a loss of power from the prison. I.e. Mandela did not cause the fall of South Africa's apartheid, he only took over afterwards. Ditto Aung San Suu Kyi. Yes, they symbolized opposition abroad, but see point #4.

    • a moderate, high-profile, opponent may be a useful insurance policy if you did lose power: at least you have a known opponent to negotiate with rather than a bloodthirsty mob baying for your blood. Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi certainly assisted a more peaceful transition. Conversely - and I don't know the answer, just asking the question - did Ceaucescu's regime have any prominent opponents left in prison?
  • Third, domestically, the aversion of political deciders towards creating martyrs is well-known. How often a martyr causes loss of power for the ruling party is another question, but certainly "we don't want to make X a martyr" is a commonly attributed motivation. In line with user16791137 answer, a regime like Maduro's Venezuela, that is somewhat short of being a full totalitarian state like Stalin's USSR might err towards caution and prison.

  • Fourth, a straight out execution puts a regime in a more difficult spot internationally. Executing Mandela would have probably made sanctions against South Africa more likely, earlier on. Executing Navalny would probably have gone some way convincing laggards like Germany not to build Nord Stream 2, even without the 2022 invasion of Ukraine.

  • Fifth, things can happen in Putin's Russia outside of prison, which is much more convenient and deniable:

    • you could get shot while walking around Moscow
    • you could fall off a balcony
    • Polonium could magically end up in your tea
    • military grade latest-generation nerve agents might accidentally end up on your underwear.
    • ...
    • While in prison you could regrettably feel unwell after having a walk and die soon afterwards, despite looking healthy enough a few days before.
  • Sixth, who is important and dangerous may not be all that clear without the benefit of hindsight. Quoting a comment below: Re Lenin: While he was in Russian jail, he probably was not that big of a risk as it could have been expected by the looking at the final results... Or, on another answer: Solzhenitsyn was sent to a labor camp (note: Solzhenitsyn wasn't sent to camps for being a dissident, but merely for voicing minor? criticism about Soviet military planning in personal letters back home in 1943). Mind you, from reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, you could apply the Hitler method as he did when he purged Rohm and the SA, along with a whole bunch of other people, as early as 1934: kill them all. Then again, killing them all should have been a huge red flag to the other European countries about Hitler, which brings you back to point #4 (international disapproval).

  • Last, a regime might be less horrible than commonly depicted in Western press and may actually have qualms about executing a political opponent.

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    Re Lenin: While he was in Russian jail, he probably was not that big of a risk as it could have been expected by the looking at the final results.. The Russian revolution was in gran part facilitated by the Romanov, and the CP of Russia was far from being the only actor. In fact, Lenin missed the February Revolution that was the one which dethroned the Romanovs.
    – SJuan76
    Jun 5, 2022 at 21:14
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    Re: point #5 - looking back at recent events, these things do not seem all that deniable; as the saying goes, "one time is an accident, two are a coincidence, three times are a trend". In fact, it is somewhat plausible some third party with little love towards both liberals and the ruling party would pull something like that specifically to provoke international outrage and put current regime in hot water. In this context, regime might see imprisonment as an attempt to isolate the person in question from random dangers like non-OSHA-compliant balconies or artisanal tea. Jun 6, 2022 at 4:44
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    Nice answer. Just wanted to note that the "Hitler method as he did when he purged Rohm and the SA" might not count as a great example as they were not political opponents at all (if anything, quite the opposite, right up until the end). That was just an example of Hitler seeing potential trouble ahead - as well as acquiescing to the concerns of the already established military - and taking some brutal preemptive steps. I doubt many, if any, in the international community were sad to see them go, even if shocked by the means.
    – ouflak
    Jun 6, 2022 at 10:43
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    As for creating martyrs Easter Rising comes to mind. Jun 6, 2022 at 12:25
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    Since you refer to bullet points via numbers, the list should be numbered. Otherwise the reader has to count the entries from the beginning to find out what you refer to.
    – Ruslan
    Jun 6, 2022 at 22:20
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An imprisoned opposition leader is a weapon and a tool to manipulate my enemies.

If I have the leader of a faction in my prison, then I have that faction on the hook.
They must either replace that leader or rescue him.

In either case, I have forced my enemies into doing something they really don't want to do.
This is particularly effective if the leader in my prison is an authoritarian leader with some variation on a cult of personality (Like my own!).
Essentially whatever leadership they promote to replace him will lack his personal power, and so their organisation will be less effective for it.
If they aim to get their original leader back, they fight on my terms and on my turf and I have the advantage over them.
Even if they replace my prisoner in their heirarchy, it's likely there will be some personal loyalty left which makes it difficult for them to ignore that I have their former leader. They may even become divided into two smaller and less effective organisations. One which seeks to recover their leader, and the other led by a new leader. In this way I can divide and conquer them as well as control the source of their authority.

If I decide that I want to cow my enemies into submission, or attack their morale, I could publically execute or torture my imprisoned enemy as well. Striking at the symbolic heart of them.

By skillfully leveraging my prisoner, their organisation can be made to react to me and be manipulated to give me the advantage for some time.

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    Good answer. Other answers provide a different international perspective, but this answer is good in addressing the tactical advantages over an opposing faction of blocking the opposition's leader & dividing the opposition should they attempt them to replace them.
    – Thomas W
    Jun 7, 2022 at 3:58
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    Another point, more towards people on the fence about which side to follow (the current regime or the opposition): having the opposition leader in prison implies that the opposition leader is a criminal, thereby tainting their organization by association. Less informed/engaged individuals may simply know what the state tells them, which is that the opposition leader is a bad guy who broke the law and deserves to be in prison. It’s an effective tool in propaganda.
    – DukeSilver
    Jun 9, 2022 at 22:17
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  1. Plausible deniability

    If the opposition leader is dead, the domestic audience and the international community will be able to directly point fingers at the regime. If the opposition leader is alive in prison, the regime has plausible deniability.

    E.g. right now, the main opposition leader of Bangladesh, Begum Khaleda Zia, is in prison. She is dying a slow death as she is not being given access to a proper healthcare facility.

  2. External mediator

    Sometimes politicians arrange an external powerful mediator to save themselves from execution.

    E.g. in 1999, Pakistan's then military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf arrested then PM Nawaz Sharif. He was probably going to be executed. However, he was able to leave the country through Saudi mediation.

  3. Bargaining chip

    Sometimes sending someone to prison for a limited time is necessary to use him as a bargaining chip.

    E.g. Afghan Taliban leader Mullah Baradar was kept in a Pakistani prison for eight years as he was trying to negotiate with India to achieve something. Later, when India was kicked out of Afghanistan, he was released and sent back.

    E.g. the PKK's Ocalan in Turkey has also been somewhat useful, to Turkey, by pushing for a ceasefire. (credits: Italian Philosophers 4 Monica)

  4. Avoiding overkill

    Sometimes killing isn't a necessity as it becomes a political burden and an overkill. In those cases, a better option is to keep the person isolated from his followers.

    E.g. Indian Kashmiri separatist leader Syed Ali Geelani was kept under house arrest until his death.

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Understand that authoritarian regimes and authoritarian leaders are not strictly 'rational' as we normally conceive the term. Or rather, authoritarian rationality is a different mode of reasoning than most of us are familiar (or comfortable) with. Authoritarianism operates on the principle of obedience, because without obedience there is no authority. As such, it is often more important (both pragmatically and psychologically) for authoritarians to compel obedience from opponents than to silence them outright.

This is particularly true of prominent opposition leaders. 'Silencing' prominent opponents — through execution, assassination, 'disappearance', etc. — doesn't change the mindsets of their followers, except perhaps to anger them. Taking them into custody, however, means placing the leader under the constant control and supervision of the authoritarian, meaning opposition leaders are forced into obedience. Going on to force opposition leaders into hard labor, starvation, drug regimens, torture, or other noxious, debilitating conditions reinforces the constant, ongoing consequences for failure of obedience. That can have a sincerely deleterious effect on the mindsets of those in the opposition. The gold standard, of course, is to so break down an opposition leader that he or she renounces his opposition and admits the rightful authority of the state — think Orwell's "1984" — but that doesn't seem to occur as often as authoritarians would prefer.

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    This is an interesting perspective. Authoritarian regimes are trying to extract compliance from a section of the populace. Merely killing individuals whom they've been able to seize, would not promote their sense of security that the masses are now compliant.
    – Steve
    Jun 7, 2022 at 21:07
  • This answer goes a long way into explaining benefits of keeping the opposition locked away but if all that is needed is deterring examples, it's not immediately clear why outright killing opposition leaders isn't seen as a viable method. Feb 16 at 16:25
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    @NoDataDumpNoContribution: You should take a look at Foucault's "Discipline and Punish". He goes into some detail about the difference between overt, "make an example of…" and subvert "make 'em disappear…" type punishments. The former have typically created martyrs and rallying points; the latter a pervasive sense of dread. People in power have learned through experience what tricks and tool=s control their subjects. Feb 16 at 16:33
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Because:

  1. The eye of the world is on these people, once their names are known in the world at large. Their elimination would be one more significant strike against the regime among the international community. By contrast, people who are completely unknown very easily vanish without a trace in totalitarian countries.

  2. The captive could actually be the scion of a grouping that still has a lot of clout in the country, despite not being the junta in power.

  3. The imprisoned dissident's support keeps rallying behind the captive; thus the individuals who can actually undertake things against the regime are but the lieutenants of the captive. Kill the captive, and one of these lieutenants becomes the new opposition leader - which poses a bigger problem than keeping the captive alive.

  4. Perhaps the regime, although totalitarian, draws the line at actually killing its citizens. I may be very wrong about this, but I don't think the white regime in SA was in favour of killing Nelson Mandela while he was in prison (although they did use life bullets in crowd control and were not worried about killing opposition leaders during manifestations that the regime would qualify as riots).

  5. The regime wants to be seen to be taking the captive through due process (kangaroo court or otherwise).

5

Controlled Opposition

Controlled opposition can take many forms. Is Navalny in prison? He is reported to be. But Nemtsov was killed in the most brazen way possible (he was shot in open view on a city street only blocks away from Kremlin). And his killer was never found.

Controlled opposition can be a useful way to defend some of the presumed national interests in contexts in which defending all of them is not possible.

Navalny, for example, has been known to defend Russian imperialism (including annexation of Crimea) and nationalism. But he presumably supports a freer political process. This makes him a useful defender of the Russian imperialism and nationalism in the contexts in which free political process is considered to be the most important priority.

On the flip side of it, is the controlled opposition like Zherenovsky, who acted as a useful contrast to the regime. He wasn't subtle. He was openly imperialistic and nationalistic. He was described as a populist, but his populism went only insofar as it aligned with regime's goals. When there were protests, Zherenovsky advocated for openly shooting the demonstrators. His job was to act as a lightening rod for criticism of the views which Putin's regime espoused behind closed doors.

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In addition to the great replies already given, part of the reason also lies in the difference between authoritarianism and totalitarianism which I have described more in-depth elsewhere on this site.

From a totalitarian point of view, the ruling group wants to control the minds and ideas of the population, not just keep power. Therefore, dissent is outright dangerous as it shows the possibility of the government being wrong. On the other hand, as the dissident is disagreeing with the true teachings, they must be silenced before they even get a chance to rise to power.

In an authoritarian system, the underlying ideology is often not seen as important. Instead, the most important goal for the ruling group is to stay in power and alive. There is not necessarily any need to preach any specific ideology and so dissent in and of itself can be less of a problem. The defining factor changes from 'can this, even theoretically, become a danger to what I say?' to 'is this threatening me and my power right now?' If the government thinks that a threat is sufficiently contained with an opposition leader in prison, then why go any further?

In the real world, the distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian is not as strict as I have outlined it here theoretically. Regimes can and do have features of both systems and over time may develop from predominantly one to predominantly the other. Nevertheless, I can't help but notice that the examples you gave in the question tend to fall more into the authoritarian camp, Havel probably being the single exception. By contrast, one might cite Stalin and Kim Jong-un as examples of more totalitarian systems that did exterminate as many opposing forces as they needed to secure their power, especially in the early stages of their respective reigns.

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    "control the minds and ideas of the population, not just keep power" - I don't see the distinction myself.
    – Steve
    Jun 7, 2022 at 21:14
  • Mao also seems like a case of totalitarianism rather than "mere" authoritarianism.
    – Tom
    Jun 8, 2022 at 0:31
  • @Steve It's the difference between keeping someone as a prisoner in your basement vs gaslighting them into believing the basement is where they want to be.
    – Rowan
    Jun 8, 2022 at 15:49
  • @Rowan, for rulers of whole societies, the second challenge is the only one that exists. There is no basement in a physical sense.
    – Steve
    Jun 9, 2022 at 0:06
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I think it is because these countries are very close to, but not quite, authoritarian. If Russia were to kill Navalny in prison, there would be uprisings, and the safety of the regime would be at stake. On the other hand, the Soviet Union under Stalin was completely authoritarian, and any dissenters would be immediately killed. By keeping opponents in prison, they at least get delayed for a time, and the regime doesn't have to worry about the negative effects of killing them.

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    Not all dissenters were killed under Stalin, e.g. Solzhenitsyn was sent to a labor camp.
    – seed
    Jun 5, 2022 at 20:36
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    @seed Solzhenitsyn was a war hero when he was sent to a camp, not a dissenter yet, whom he mostly became during the incarceration.
    – alamar
    Jun 6, 2022 at 6:58
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    @alamar He was imprisoned for criticizing Stalin in his letters to a friend.
    – seed
    Jun 7, 2022 at 2:46
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    "If Russia were to kill Navalny in prison, there would be uprisings, and the safety of the regime would be at stake." It happened. So let's see. The risk of uprisings may be over-estimated by this answer. Feb 16 at 16:18
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    @O.R.Mapper Like other murders of opposition figures clumsily disguised as accidents in Russia, I don't think that many people at all seriously doubt that Navalny was murdered with an intent to send a message.
    – ohwilleke
    Feb 16 at 18:38
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I want to point out the following: a person can be killed in prison via 4 different ways: execution after a public trial, execution after a closed-doors trial, suspicious assasination and unsuspicious assasination.

I would argue that suspicious assasination brings the worst consequences to the regime and state.

This is because assasination undermines morale and legal order in the country. It corrupts all levels of society. After such news this happens:

  • It immediately corrupts all involved: the special services, the investigators, the criminalists, experts, doctors, witnesses, everyone who has to hide the crime.
  • The parents and teachers do not know what to tell the kids because the upbringing requires teaching them the necessity of following law.
  • The police officers start to think why not to kill that businessman in jail who refuses to hand over his business and property to the general
  • The doctor thinks why not to kill an old lady for bribe from her relatives
  • The army officer thinks why not to send troops onto a suicide mission so to hide theft
  • Judges stop to judge by law
  • All law quickly stops functioning in the whole state. Suddenly the state stops being the state
  • Enforcers start to plot and negotiate with each other, getting rid of personal enemies.
  • All stop to think in terms of legal punishment but rather it terms of negotiation with the stronger ones. The state becomes a mafia.
  • This leads to all possible ways to lose power, from military mutiny to local separatism as everyone starts to think not in terms of what is the right and legal thing to do but it terms whether they would be caught and whether they can solve their own problems by illegal actions.
  • If the regime has an ideology, that ideology instantly looses power.

The things become even worse if in the course of assasination uninvolved people get killed. This becomes difficult to explain even to the hard-line regime's supporters.

Executing people also has negative consequences but not that bad. That's why most authoritarian regimes openly execute enemies.

Whatever dystopian society you are building, it is in your interest to keep it lawful.

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  • That's why most authoritarian regimes openly execute enemies. Citation required. There's quite a number of regimes that used terror - disappearing people - as a means.
    – vidarlo
    Mar 2 at 23:10

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