PhD summary

My dissertation entitled „A conceptual and empirical study of political imprisonment“ seeks to enhance our understanding of political imprisonment, which represents a globally widespread violation of individual’s rights to liberty and freedom from arbitrary arrest. Empirical evidence on political imprisonment is largely absent in light of systematic data constraints and given that we lack explicit criteria on how to identify political prisoners consistently across political contexts. My dissertation addresses these challenges, generating novel empirical evidence on the determinants, on the duration, and on the consequences of political imprisonment in autocratic regimes.

To allow for a systematic study of political imprisonment, I establish a conceptual foundation by defining the necessary and sufficient conditions that qualify an act of incarceration as political imprisonment. Drawing on a systematic review of the academic literature, I demonstrate that academic definitions of political prisoners differ on several dimensions, such as with regard to the source of politicization and the criteria for biased state decisions. In order to establish political prisoners as an analytically consistent concept, I suggest to reserve it for victims of politically biased state decisions, while remaining agnostic toward prisoners‘ political motivations. I introduce explicit criteria grounded in international law to identify politically biased deprivations of liberty in practice. The new conceptualization allows me to disentangle political imprisonment from other types of imprisonment as illustrated by a novel prisoner typology. The newly developed political prisoner concept represents a coherent ‚data container‘, providing the precondition for empirical measurement and comparative analysis.

Building on this conceptual foundation, I empirically investigate determinants of political imprisonment in the context of the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). I draw on a previously classified prisoner dataset that was compiled by the Eastern German Ministry of State Security. I investigate how variation in domestic surveillance capacities affects the frequency of political imprisonment in autocratic states. In contrast to conventional wisdom, I argue that rising surveillance capacities lower the number of political imprisonments in power-maximizing autocracies. Surveillance reduces the uncertainty about the correct targets of repression, allowing autocratic regimes to selectively detain dissidents while sparing other citizens. Rising surveillance capacities also create incentives to replace political imprisonment with silent tools of repression that allow the regime to evade accountability. I leverage sub-national and temporal variation in levels of spy infiltration and political imprisonments in the former GDR between 1984 and 1988 to investigate my theoretical arguments. I find that greater spy infiltration was linked to a reduction of political imprisonment and to a systematic shift to ‚decomposition measures‘, which represented a silent instrument of repression. The evidence suggests that surveillance capacities were negatively related to political imprisonment in the former GDR.

Subsequently, I investigate political imprisonment as an explanatory variable, tackling the research question of how political imprisonment affects the likelihood of anti-regime protests. Together with my co-author Christoph Dworschak, I argue that political imprisonment facilitates rather than stifles protest against autocratic regimes. Political imprisonment represents a salient indicator of arbitrary rule, creating ‚embodied grievances‘. Given that political imprisonment is directly attributable to the government in power, it is more likely to trigger anti-regime opposition than other physical integrity right abuses where accountability can be more diffuse. Political imprisonment incites opposition also through its direct effects on political prisoners. Political imprisonment tends to sharpen political prisoner’s skills of resistance and it enables the formation of dissident networks within prisons. Political imprisonment also serves as a legitimating credential for former inmates to lead resistance movements. An interplay of these mechanisms suggests that political imprisonment is a self-defeating strategy, making it easier for the opposition to overcome the collective action problem. We exploit sub-national variation in political imprisonment and daily variation in the initiation of the protests in 1989 across Eastern German counties to empirically investigate these claims. Results from survival analyses and placebo tests lend support to our hypothesized relationship. Eastern German counties with more political imprisonments mobilized earlier against the regime. The findings are robust to conditioning on the Stasi’s own latent threat perception, which we measure with originally collected archival data on local surveillance operations. Combined with semi-structured interviews with former East German political prisoners, the findings suggest that political imprisonment contributed to anti-regime mobilization in the former GDR.

Finally, I seek to explain variation in the duration of political imprisonment in autocratic regimes. Autocratic regimes have incentives to choose longer detention times for political prisoners deemed as threatening to their rule. I suggest that autocratic regimes evaluate the level of threat of each individual political prisoner based on the observed criminalized action that leads to her or his incarceration. Criminalized actions tend to be perceived as most threatening if they indicate high collective action potentials and maximalist demands. Autocratic regimes also tend to condition the duration of political imprisonment on ethnic and religious group identities. By choosing longer detention times for citizens from ethnic and religious minorities, they create a selective deterrence effect and enhance the cost of identity-based political mobilization. Autocratic regimes are especially likely to choose this strategy if minority groups credibly signalled their mobilization capacities in the past. Given that human rights violations against ethnic and religious out-groups tend to produce less opposition in the majority population, the choice of longer detention times for minority citizens is less costly for autocratic regimes. I test my theoretical arguments with individual-level data on Chinese political prisoners. Since prisoners‘ preceding actions shape detention times, I hand-code each prisoner’s criminalized action that led to incarceration. The findings suggest that ethnic Uyghurs are significantly longer imprisoned than non-minority political prisoners and that ethnic Uyghurs are also more likely to die in prison.

Taken together, this dissertation suggests that autocratic regimes make strategic decisions on the targets, the frequency, and the duration of political imprisonment. Autocratic regimes selectively target specific individuals or groups deemed as threatening to their rule, they weigh the benefits of long-term detentions with its costs, and they substitute political imprisonment with other repressive tools conditional on their capacities to identify dissidents. While autocracies aim to deter and to incapacitate opposition through political imprisonment, the empirical evidence suggests that political imprisonment tends to breed dissent and to destabilize autocratic regimes in the long-run.