6 Notorious Exiles Who Were Granted Politcal Asylum

Political asylum is the idea that anyone facing unlawful or unjust persecution can legally flee to another country for protection.

According to the United Nations’ declaration of human rights, “everyone has the right to seek and to enjoy in other countries asylum from persecution. … This right may not be invoked in the case of prosecutions genuinely arising from non-political crimes or from acts contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”

The right is mostly used by legitimate political refugees; however, some nations have less critical criteria than others. Here are six high-profile refugees who were granted political asylum.

1. Assata Shakur

Photo courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation via Wikipedia.

Also known as Joanne Chesimard, Shakur is currently among the top 10 on the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list, and is on the run after escaping her life sentence in a New Jersey prison in 1979. She currently lives in Cuba under political asylum.

Shakur, step-aunt of the deceased hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur, was involved with the extremist ‘70s organization Black Liberation Army. In 1973, she was convicted of murdering a police officer in a shootout on the New Jersey Turnpike.[contextly_auto_sidebar]

After escaping prison, she lived underground in the U.S. for a few years before she made it to Cuba, where she was granted political asylum in 1984. In 2013, she was classified as a terrorist, a designation questioned by some, including the North American Congress on Latin America.

2. Tenzin Gyatso


Photo courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives via Flickr.

The 14th Dalai Lama, born in 1935, has not set foot in his native Tibet since 1959, when Chinese forces cracked down on a popular uprising in the region, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

To escape possible persecution, and to be able to run the Tibetan government in exile, he fled to India, which granted him political asylum that same year.

3. Julian Assange


Image courtesy of Thomas Foucher, via photo on Flickr taken by thierry ehrmann.

Assange is the Australian hacker and journalist who founded the whistleblower website WikiLeaks in 2006, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica. He has been granted political asylum by the government of Ecuador.

His name entered the international spotlight in November 2010 when the website posted more than 250,000 confidential U.S. diplomatic cables, exposing a broad range of communications on topics such as sanctions on Iran.

He is also wanted in Sweden on a charge of sexual assault. An arrest warrant was first issued in August 2010, which was canceled, but a second one was issued in September that year, and it remains in effect despite Assange’s appeals. The full timeline is available at the Swedish prosecution authority’s website.

However, he remains in Britain, fighting extradition to Sweden as it could conceivably lead to an extradition to the U.S. if charges are pressed due to the cable leak.

4. Bobby Fischer


Photo courtesy of the German Federal Archive via Wikipedia.

Considered one of the greatest chess players in the world, Bobby Fischer had been playing the game for most of his life when he defeated Boris Spassky in the legendary 1972 U.S.-Soviet World Chess Championship in Iceland, according to his New York Times obituary.

The match was America’s first win in the championship, and it was a hailed as a Cold War victory. However, following the victory, Fischer became gradually more withdrawn, and would only appear in the media over the years to make bizarre anti-Semitic comments.

In 1992, Yugoslavia hosted a rematch between Spassky and Fischer, which the latter won handily. However, Yugoslavia was currently under U.S. sanctions for the war in Bosnia, and Fischer went on the run to avoid the consequences of violating the sanctions.

In 2004, he was arrested in Tokyo when it was discovered his passport was invalid. Fighting extradition to the U.S., he was eventually granted citizenship in Iceland, where he remained in asylum until he died of kidney failure in 2008.

5. Alexander Litvinenko


Photo courtesy of

A former agent for KGB and FSB (its successor agency in post-Soviet Russia), Litvinenko was sentenced to nine years in prison after he made charges of extortion, corruption, and murder against FSB officials, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

He fled to London in 2000, and was granted political asylum there the following year. While in exile, he made numerous, well-publicized allegations against the Putin regime, alleging their involvement in domestic terrorist incidents such as the Moscow theater siege where more than 130 people died, as reported by the BBC.

In 2006, he was granted a British citizenship. In November that year, however, he fell seriously ill, from what was discovered to be poisoning by the radioactive chemical polonium-210. He died after a little more than three weeks in the hospital.

6. Chen Guangcheng


Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of State via Wikimedia Commons.

Dubbed “the barefoot lawyer,” the activist Chen Guangcheng has been blind for most of his life but nevertheless taught himself law, according to the New York Times. He used that knowledge to advocate peasant’s rights, helping people with disabilities avoid illegal fees and taxes, and even stopped a local mill from spewing toxic chemicals into a river.

In 2006, however, he organized a class-action lawsuit, which is rare in China, against the local authorities for forcing women to have late-term abortions and become sterilized. The government took notice of this, however, and he was jailed from 2006 until 2010.

Following his release, Chen and his family were essentially placed in house arrest, their house guarded by police. However, in May 2012 he somehow managed to sneak out under the cover of darkness, eventually making it to the U.S. embassy in Beijing.

After staying there for two weeks, he was offered a visiting scholar position at New York University, and was granted a visa. Although not technically political asylum, some believe the university offer was part of a deal to allow Chen and his family to leave China.


We measure success by the understanding we deliver. If you could express it as a percentage, how much fresh understanding did we provide?
Ole Skaar