Skip to main content

Putting Ideas Behind Bars: Here’s Why It Doesn’t Work

January 05, 2023
Christoph Dworschak and Christoph V. Steinert


In analysis for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported blog dedicated to political violence and its alternatives, Christoph Dworschak, a lecturer at the University of York, and Christoph V. Steinert, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Mannheim, analyze why political imprisonment to perpetuate a repressive regime probably works to the detriment of the autocrat, using the example of Iran and Mahsa Amini.

On September 13, Iranian police arrested Mahsa Amini in Tehran for alleged dress code violations. The young woman died three days later, with reports indicating that she suffered severe abuse while in police custody. Since then, Iran has seen a continuous spell of anti-government protests. Meanwhile, the autocratic regime—with the help of its Revolutionary Guards—has sought to quell the unrest with large-scale political imprisonment. According to estimates by the Iranian Human Rights Activists News Agency, almost 19,200 people have been arrested since the beginning of the protests. Is the arrest of dissidents an effective strategy?

Collective action is hard. Especially in the face of severe repression, it is difficult to gather a crowd of people and gain the momentum needed for a protest movement to gain traction. Iran’s prisons are notorious for the torture and ill-treatment of political prisoners. Despite such severe risks, the protests in Iran have continued for more than 100 days. While a large body of research finds that repression can backfire and incite protests in some contexts—see, for example, here and here—we know little about the role and idiosyncrasies of political imprisonment. Will the imprisonment of dissidents in Iran stymie the protests? Will it help the regime deter unrest? Or could it backfire?

In a recent study published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, we find that using political imprisonment to perpetuate a repressive regime may work to the detriment of the autocrat, for four reasons.

Read the full blog post at Political Violence At A Glance.