10 World Leaders Who Allegedly Jailed Their Political Opponents and Critics

Donald Trump shocked both Republicans and Democrats when he stated during the second presidential debate of 2016 that if he were president, Hillary Clinton would be in jail. “If I win, I am going to instruct my Attorney General to get a special prosecutor to look into your situation,” Trump said, referring to Clinton's email scandal. When Clinton later remarked that it's "awfully good that someone with the temperament of Donald Trump is not in charge of the law in our country,” Trump fired back: “Because you’d be in jail."

While vowing to imprison a political opponent during a debate may be unprecedented in American politics, actually imprisoning political opponents is something that happens in authoritarian regimes with relative frequency. Politicians who jailed their opponents and critics include dictators and democratically elected presidents from around the globe. World leaders who jailed political opponents don't typically admit it, of course, but organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and even the United Nations make strong cases that these corrupt practices occur, spurring other nations to sometimes intervene to try to rescue political prisoners.

  • Who He Allegedly Jailed: Yulia Tyoshenko, former Ukrainian Prime Minister and presidential candidate.

    Donald Trump's former campaign manager Paul Manafort's "extreme makeover" of Yanukovych is widely considered to have helped get him elected president in Ukraine back in February 2010, according to the New York Times. In October 2011, Yanukovych's opponent in that race, Yulia Tyoshenko, was sentenced to seven years in prison on "abuse of power" charges related to negotiations with Russia in 2009 over natural gas prices when she was prime minister.

    The United States, the European Union, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International all called for her release, condemning the case as politically motivated. Legal experts say Tyoshenko was simply performing a "routine administrative function" that did not warrant criminal charges. Tyoshenko was released after three years as the Ukrainian Supreme Court and the European Court of Human Rights found that no crime was, in fact, committed.

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin
    Photo: Frederic Legrand - COMEO / Shutterstock

    Who He Allegedly Jailed: Mikhail Kodorkovsky, ex-oil tycoon and opposition supporter.

    Oligarch Kodorkovsky was Russia's richest man before being imprisoned for more than 10 years on charges of tax evasion and fraud, which he says were politically motivated. Kodorkovsky supported the liberal opposition to Putin and published the Moskovskiye Novosti newspaper, with a well-known journalist critical on Putin on staff. He also questioned state oil policies and raised corruption allegations.

    US officials accused Putin of abusing the legal system through his "selective prosecution" of individuals such as Kodorkovsky; classified cables released by WikiLeaks, in fact, revealed that US diplomats believe the case is an example of how the Russian legal system is a "cynical system where political enemies are eliminated with impunity."

    Putin pardoned Kodorkovsky in December 2013, a move that at least one opposition leader considered to be a possible publicity stunt ahead of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

  • Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe
    Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    Who He Allegedly Jailed: Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

    Tsvangirai claims that Mugabe's "regime" arrested him and other activists in 2007 for breaking a law against holding political protests. While detained by police, Tsvangirai - who ran against Mugabe for president once in 2002 and again in 2008 - was so badly beaten he needed blood transfusions for internal bleeding. He also suffered a fractured skull. Mugabe's information minister claimed the protestors had attacked police, a claim Tsvangirai denied. The activists initially appeared in court, but were later released without being charged when prosecution lawyers failed to appear. The United States and the European Union strongly condemned the arrest and the brutality.

  • Republic of the Congo’s President Denis Sassou Nguesso
    Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    Who He Allegedly Jailed: Opposition leader Paulin Makaya.

    Joy Reid of MSNBC compared Donald Trump's remarks in the 2016 debate to what happened in the Congo to Makaya, the leader of the UPC party ("Unis Pour le Congo"). Makaya was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison in November 2015 for taking part in an "unauthorized" protest against changes to the constitution that would allow President Ngeusso - who has ruled Congo for all but five years since 1979 - to run for an additional term. Amnesty International has declared Makaya a "prisoner of conscience" who was unlawfully detained by Ngeusso's government.

  • Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak
    Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    Who He Allegedly Jailed: Political opponent and runner-up in the 2005 presidential election Ayman Nour.

    Nour was sentenced to five years in jail by the Mubarak administration in 2005 - just three months after losing to Mubarak - for allegedly forging signatures to register his party. The case was considered by many to be politically inspired and one co-defendant said he was forced to make a false confession. The United States strongly criticized the sentence as a miscarriage of justice; Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, in fact, canceled an official trip to Cairo over what one House International Relations Committee member called a "suppression of democracy." President George W. Bush even explicitly said Nour was "unjustly imprisoned" in a speech in the Czech Republic in 2007. Nour was released in 2009 after three years "on health grounds" related to diabetes.

  • Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni
    Photo: Metaweb (FB) / Public domain

    Who He Allegedly Jailed: Opposition leader Kizza Besigye.

    Yoweri Museveni has been the President of Uganda since 1986, despite the best efforts of Kizza Besigye, who has run against Museveni on four occasions. In 2016, he was arrested by police at his party's headquarters for visiting a house where he thought ballot-stuffing was taking place (the votes for the race were still being tallied). Police, however, said the home was actually government property and Besigye had been trespassing. The US State Department condemned the arrest, saying it was just further "intimidation" from a government that also chose to block social media on election day.

    After Besigye lost the election he called "fraudulent," police placed him under house arrest because they suspected he was "mobilizing others to come and cause havoc."