PolitiFact declares Jan 6 defendants aren’t ‘political prisoners’ – but that’s not up for them to decide

On Wednesday, PolitiFact ruled as “mostly false” an opinionated Instagram post that characterized people charged for entering the U.S. Capitol on January 6 as political prisoners.

Summary

  • An Instagram post says “Free Jan 6 Political Prisoners” and “non-violent trespassers have been solitary confinement for the past 6 months.”
  • PolitiFact says this post is “mostly false” because some Jan 6 defendants were charged with committing violent crimes.
  • It is true, some Jan 6 defendants have been charged with committing violent acts. The majority of defendants who have been charged, however, have not been charged with violent acts.
  • Some non-violent defendants remain jailed after 6 months and have been denied bond.
  • PolitiFact says “defendants are not being prosecuted for political beliefs,” as evidence that they are not “political prisoners.”
  • The term political prisoner is an inherently subjective characterization and few, if any governments openly admit they are detaining people for political reasons.
  • There are some observable disparities between the way prosecutors have treated Jan 6 defendants (including nonviolent ones), compared to other people who have disrupted previous congressional activity at the US capitol, as well as those who have been charged with violent acts at other protest events. A reasonable person could form the opinion that, based on the politics of defendants in different but similar cases, Jan 6 defendants are being held to a more severe standard than people of different political persuasions in similar instances.
  • Honest fact-checkers should not attach fact-check labels to statements of opinion, as it risks those opinions (which can be merited) being censored.

On Sunday, an Instagram user shared a post that says “Free Jan 6 Political Prisoners” and “non-violent trespassers have been solitary confinement for the past 6 months.”

PolitiFact labeled this post “mostly false” reasoning that Jan 6 defendants “face charges that include violent acts and attacks on officers” and they “are not mere trespassers.” The week, CBS reported at least 543 defendants have been charged in connection with the Jan. 6 incident, of which 165 defendants have been charged either with assaulting, resisting, or impeding officers or Capitol employees. It is unclear whether those “resisting” or “impeding” charges could be considered violent acts, but assuming they are, thats about 30 percent of defendants actually being charged with a violent offence (by the inverse property, about 70 percent of Jan 6 defendants were non-violent).  The large majority of those charged in connection with Jan 6 face charges equivalent to trespassing

PolitiFact noted of the defendants, most have been released ahead of their trails, but “some remain in jail and some in solitary confinement.” PolitiFact does not clearly explain whether those still detained were violent offenders. After a non-exhaustive review of the cases (about 10 minutes of Googling), The MetaFact Group found several cases in which defendants from Jan 6 who were not charged with a violent offense, have been denied bail and remain jailed for months.

One defendant, a 60-year-old man named Richard Barnett, has been denied bail on charges he had (but did not use) a taser at the Capitol on Jan 6, entered Pelosi’s office, put his feet on the furniture and stole a piece of mail from her office. In April, Politico reported Barnett was one of three jailed defendants who had allegedly been assaulted by correctional officers while in jail. One fellow defendant, Ronald Sandlin, said those guards tackled Barnett “to the ground” and one of the guards then said, “I hate all white people and your honky religion.” Another defendant, Ryan Samsel alleged he was zip-tied, moved to a cell where surveillance cameras couldn’t see him and was beaten by guards. Sandlin said Samsel is “blind in one eye, has a skull fracture and detached retina.”

Other non-violent defendants remain jailed without bail.

Jessica Watkins has been charged with property destruction but no violent act against any person at the Capitol. She remains jailed without release on bail. According to Ideastream Public Media, “There’s no evidence that Watkins assaulted any police officers or directly damaged or stole any property inside the Capitol on January 6.” She turned herself in when she learned the FBI was looking for her and a judge said she is not considered a flight risk. Yet she remains jailed.
Jacob Chansley, who has been called the QAnon Shaman, remains jailed as well. He is not accused of committing any violence against any person, though the Department of Justice has charged him with violent entry. Violent entry does not necessarily mean a violent act was committed. Per the Cornell Law Library, violent entry is an offense with a broad definition, which could include acts of physical violence, but could cover acts to include being in the Capitol without authorization utter loud, threatening, or abusive language.
The law:

Violent entry and disorderly conduct.—An individual or group of individuals may not willfully and knowingly—

(A) enter or remain on the floor of either House of Congress or in any cloakroom or lobby adjacent to that floor, in the Rayburn Room of the House of Representatives, or in the Marble Room of the Senate, unless authorized to do so pursuant to rules adopted, or an authorization given, by that House;

(B) enter or remain in the gallery of either House of Congress in violation of rules governing admission to the gallery adopted by that House or pursuant to an authorization given by that House;

(C) with the intent to disrupt the orderly conduct of official business, enter or remain in a room in any of the Capitol Buildings set aside or designated for the use of—

 (i) either House of Congress or a Member, committee, officer, or employee of Congress, or either House of Congress; or

(ii) the Library of Congress;

(D) utter loud, threatening, or abusive language, or engage in disorderly or disruptive conduct, at any place in the Grounds or in any of the Capitol Buildings with the intent to impede, disrupt, or disturb the orderly conduct of a session of Congress or either House of Congress, or the orderly conduct in that building of a hearing before, or any deliberations of, a committee of Congress or either House of Congress;

(E) obstruct, or impede passage through or within, the Grounds or any of the Capitol Buildings;

(F) engage in an act of physical violence in the Grounds or any of the Capitol Buildings; or

(G)parade, demonstrate, or picket in any of the Capitol Buildings.

The jailed Jan 6 defendants, like Barnett, Watkins and Chansely, are being held in Washington D.C.’s Correctional Treatment Facility. According to Politico, those at the facility are kept in 23-hour-a-day isolation.  The Instagram post’s claim that “non-violent trespassers have been solitary confinement for the past 6 months” is true, not “mostly false” as PolitiFact asserts.

Regarding the definition of political prisoners, there is no single accepted definition.  Helen Taylor Greene and Shaun L. Gabbidon write in the Encyclopedia of Race and Crime, that a political prisoner is “sanctioned by legal systems and imprisoned by political regimes not for their violation of codified laws but for their thoughts and ideas that have fundamentally challenged existing power relations.” Greene and Gabbidon write that Nelson Mandela is “an example of a former political prisoner interned for his resistance to racial hierarchies.” Mandela was never charged with the crime of resisting the racial hierarchies of the South African government, he was charged with sabotage, treason, and violent conspiracy, which Mandela admitted to and defended. The Washington Post notes Mandela refused to renounce decades of violence even after having been offered a presidential pardon.

Few if any governments ever charge people with an expressly political offense (as opposed to a legal offense). Even violent actors have been considered “political prisoners,” so the political prisoner definition is entirely too subjective for PolitiFact to attempt to “fact-check.”

There is an argument to be made that Jan 6 defendants are being punished more for political reasons. One does not have to agree with the arguments to understand that the assertion Jan 6 defendants are political prisoners is a viable opinion. Barnett (mentioned above), has asserted he “wanted to exercise his First Amendment right to petition his government for redress of grievance and have his voice heard” on Jan 6, putting his basis for being at the Capitol in line with the First Amendment language “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech . . .  or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Could it be argued that those charged only with trespassing at the Capitol were engaged in the type of protest defined in the 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution? Barnett is arguing that very claim.

Another argument that could be made, that Jan 6 defendants are being punished to the degree they are for political reasons, is people involved in similar protest actions, but who arguably have much different political views, have been let off with less severe punishment. Jan 6 is not the first time protesters have entered the U.S. Capitol. In the fall of 2018, during the confirmation hearing for Justice Brett Kavanaugh (an appointee of Republican President Donald Trump), protesters entered the Capitol and protested. Among those Kavanaugh protesters were punished with a $50 fine, including actress Jane Fonda and Rev. Raphael Warnock (now a Democrat U.S. Senator). A $50 fine for entering the Capitol is a different punishment than remaining in jail for months awaiting trial (and in some cases being beaten by jail guards) for the Jan 6 defendants who are generally seen as having supported Trump, or being Republican or conservative.

Prior to Jan 6, there were also months of destructive demonstrations throughout the country in the summer of 2020. In Portland, where demonstrations were declared riots and where individuals assaulted federal officers, threw rocks and fireworks at a federal court building and charges included arson, looting, vandalism, many of those charged have had their cases dropped. The Guardian reported about half of charges were dropped for those charged in Portland. Among those whose charges were dropped were four defendants charged with assaulting a federal officer, which is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison.

In 1954, four people opened fire at the floor of Congress and injured five congressmen. Those individuals were convicted and imprisoned, but were pardoned or had their sentences commuted by Democrat President Jimmy Carter.

Susan Rosenberg and Linda Evans, who were convicted in the bombing of U.S. government buildings, including the 1983 United States Senate bombing were also pardoned by Democrat President Bill Clinton.

PolitiFact decision to call “mostly false” what is essentially an argument over who is deserving of the labal “political prisoner” is them inserting their own opinion in the matter, rather than adhering strictly to the role of determining what is and isn’t a factual claim.

The Instagram post PolitiFact called “mostly false” was shared coinciding with Republican lawmakers calling for accountability about the treatment of Jan 6 defendants. Those Republican lawmakers held a press conference on this matter, which was disrupted by protesters.

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