Extrajudicial punishment

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Extrajudicial punishment consists of various actions to imprison, relocate, harm, torture, or kill someone outside of the legal system, without legal process, and without supervision from a court and its systems of recourse, i.e., the rule of law. In short: It's when someone breaks the law to take away someone else's rights. It is similar to vigilante justice, but extrajudicial punishment is usually illegal actions of state agents (law enforcement, intelligence agencies, armed forces) which may be approved by authorities (tacitly or otherwise), while vigilantism generally refers to mob justice or people acting covertly and not even pretending to be lawful agents of the state.

Extrajudicial punishment is a mechanism of fascism when it is targeted as a specific group of people, typically based on ethnicity, religion, class, or immigration status.[1]:129-134


Arbitrary detentions consist of the arrest and detainment of persons without judicial recourse. Political opponents are frequently the targets of these extralegal processes in authoritarian states, although "democratic" Western states are increasingly willing and able to detain alleged terrorists without charges. Arbitrary detentions are in violation of Articles 1, 3, 7, 9, 10, and 11 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,[2] and also frequently ignore the assumed right of habeus corpus.

Where there is no independent judiciary, arbitrary detentions are simple and common. Without a standard of evidence to be met or an independent body to determine whether such a standard has been met, the police power to detain is supreme. While arrests may be carried out by a normal police force, paramilitaries are widely used to detain political enemies.

The presence of supreme laws and an independent judiciary does not confer complete immunity from arbitrary detainment. Standard practice, even in some places where the legal system is not subservient to police power, is to pass statutes granting police powers to detain without charge or judicial review. Modern anti-terrorism laws frequently contain provisions to legalize temporary detention without charges, while the United States government uses a lack of extraterritoriality, and comparatively lax laws in other countries, such as Syria, and, in particular, military installations, such as Guantanamo Bay,[3] to imprison, indefinitely and without charge, anyone declared an "unlawful enemy combatant", a phrase coined to avoid granting prisoner of war status and rights to detainees.[4] The phrase has since been retired and replaced with "unprivileged enemy belligerents".[5]

Prison arrangements vary extensively between countries. Where a significant number of long-term detainees exist, governments may build special systems of prisons like the Soviet gulags and Nazi concentration/labor camps; both of these systems involved forced labor. China has prominently placed a number of political dissidents under house arrest,[6] and has relocated 1 million or more ethnic Uyghurs into prison camps. Facilities may or may not be secret. America currently operates a sizable prison camp at the Guantanamo Bay naval base on the island of Cuba. In addition, the CIA either operates or until recently operated a system of secret prisons for prisoners considered too valuable to place in the relative spotlight of Guantanamo.[6][7]


Countries cooperating in extraordinary rendition: Black - the United States and CIA-run "black sites"; dark blue — points of origin for ER journeys; light blue — transit routes; red — destinations.

Extraordinary rendition is a euphemism for "moving people to where it's easier to hurt them without legal repercussions".

Extraordinary rendition is usually used to describe the secret and illegal movement of terrorism suspects for "enhanced interrogation" (a euphemism for torture) from the United States (where we pretend to have things called civil rights) to countries where such practices are legal. Although the actual rendition was mostly carried out by the CIA, it depended on the cooperation, and silence, of several other countries.[8] It was "abolished" by President Barack Obama. Extraordinary rendition is distinguished from ordinary rendition plain old "rendition" in that the latter is a formal legal process in which a suspect or convicted person is handed over from one jurisdiction to another, subject to certain guarantees (e.g. that a suspect will get a fair trial, will not subjected to torture and/or capital punishment[note 1]). Thus, rendition is typically used to deliver suspects from where they were apprehended to where they will be prosecuted or to serve their sentence in their home state. Extraordinary rendition, by contrast, is not about either prosecution or incarceration in relation to where a crime has been committed or a suspect/criminal originates, but about placing detainees in locations convenient to the agency and/or country behind the detainment in terms of either deniability (that the government/agency has not detained the person in question), expediency (no need to actually charge the detainees, hence none of the usual legal guarantees), and/or freedom to “torture by outsourcing” (e.g. the CIA is not torturing detainees itself, but delivering them to places where they will be tortured with any information gathered through torture flowing back to the CIA). In addition, detainees may have been kidnapped by the CIA or another covert agency in a third country, either entirely without that country's permission or with only unofficial permission and in violation of the country's actual laws. This form of rendition does not necessarily result in torture, but doesn't rule it out either.

According to current estimates, over 3,000 terror suspects were abducted around the world and transferred to camps since President George W. Bush's declaration of "War on Terror" in 2001.

While Obama has drastically limited the practice to be all but eliminated, he still retains the "legal" right to use extraordinary rendition under specific and particular circumstances. According to an inquiry into United States CIA billing practices for 2010,[note 2] it appears Obama used rendition in 2 cases since he took office.[9]

Fourteen European countries were found to have cooperated in extraordinary rendition, according to a report of the European Parliament. They were: Austria, Belgium, Cyprus, Denmark, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.[10][11]


A Waffen-SS officer about to murder a Jewish woman and her child in Ukraine.

Extrajudicial execution is a euphemism for murder.

More specifically, extrajudicial execution may occur when the state kills someone without proper due process. This can involve the direct agents of the state (such as the military or police), or indirect agents such as private citizens whom the state elects not to punish for their actions. (This presupposes that the private citizen does not have an affirmative defense that would hold up in the state's courts of law, such as self-defense.)[note 3]

Extrajudicial executions are almost universally considered a violation of human rights. However, many states continue the practice, either in secret or else justifying it as necessary. The most common justification involves claiming a state of emergency, or that the killings are necessary because the judiciary is weak, slow, or corrupt. Human rights organizations reject these excuses in almost all cases.

Extrajudicial executions most often[citation needed] occur in countries where the leaders of the state have authoritarian leanings, but the state is not strong enough for the use of formal methods. It also happens when the judiciary so opposes the would-be authoritarians that they will not allow the kinds of executions those in charge want.

In places like the Philippines, extrajudicial executions may happen when a populist leader convinces the public that dispensing with constitutional niceties is the most expedient way to bring about law and order. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has responded to criticism by saying that Germany killed many Jews[12] — a textbook example of the Tu quoque fallacy.

On the other hand, "extrajudicial executions" also occur commonly in states where the centralized power is very weak. The closer a state is to ochlocracy, the greater the chances of extrajudicial executions.[note 4]

Most of the time,[citation needed] the term is used in reference to killings in Latin America (such as the campaign of killings in Chile in the 1970s and 1980s under Augusto Pinochet) or in the failed states of the world. It is often forgotten that one of the longest-running campaigns of "extrajudicial executions" was that of lynching in the United States. For half a century, it was commonplace in much of the country for mobs of whites to hang African Americans for merely breaching the social etiquette of the times.[1]:130-121 Afterwards, none of the participants would be punished in any way (see KKK). Sometimes the participants included local government officials, including law enforcement.


Assassination involves the extra-judicial killing of a prominent figure. Assassins may operate within a given society (witness John Wilkes Booth on 14 April 1865) or from outside (as in the the killing of the commander of Iran's Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani on 3 January 2020[13]). Collateral damage may occur during assassinations (for example, at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914).

Lynch mobs[edit]

Three black men lynched in Georgia.

A lynch mob is a group of people intent on an extrajudicial execution, though they might settle for some enhanced interrogation. Their victim is a specific individual, but the mob may direct their collective rage at persons who resemble their intended victim.

Historically, a lynch mob is any mob of people whipped up to kill someone (by definition: by lynching). While hanging is a typical image invoked from lynchings, other forms such as shooting, mutilating, forcing a victim off a bridge, and burning alive are also common. Lynching by hanging is generally easier to photograph (hence such examples show up more frequently in historical records). While groups punishing individuals without legal proceedings was a common feature of early law enforcement (as the court system either didn't exist at all yet or was exclusively reserved for the wealthy), the term lynching goes back to the 1780s American Lynch Law, referring to a punishment without trial, and the term became inextricably associated with racially-motivated violence. In the Southern United States, from the Reconstruction era (of 1865 to 1877) until the 1960s, it was a common occurrence for groups of whites to catch black men who were accused of some offense, including rape, but often other breaches of Southern 'etiquette', and to lynch them. While the public perception at the time was that these lynchings were mostly of rapists, a 1919 study of 2,500 Southern lynchings found that only one-sixth of victims had been accused of rape or sexual misconduct.[14][15][1]:130-121 Rarely were these accusations ever fairly adjudicated.

Recently found and restored photographs have documented the often festive air of American public hangings, where whole communities would get together and "have picnics" in the shadow of a dead black man.[16] [note 5] Overlapping that phenomenon is the use of mob violence to repress organized labor in the South and the American West.[18] One of the first major civil rights fights of the 20th century involved the campaign to make lynching a federal crime, over objections of Southern Democrats that it was necessary to maintain public order. In the period from 1882 to 1968, some 200 bills were introduced in Congress that attempted to outlaw lynching, all of which were rejected. This struggle led to the emergence of the NAACP as a major civil-rights organization. Lynchings primarily targeted black men in the South, but other ethnic groups also became victims, and in other parts of the U.S.,[19] such as the lynching of Chinese people in 1871,Wikipedia one of the larger mass-lynchings in American history. In 2005, the United States Senate saw fit to apologize for its historical stymieing of anti-lynching bills. It took until late 2018 for a bill, Justice for Victims of Lynching Act of 2018, to be successfully passed in the House and the Senate.[20]

In modern usage, the term "lynch mob" is often used as pejorative description of a group that gets angry at an individual, with the implication that the individual is being subjected to unfair persecution. This usage can be controversial, since some say it masks the true horror of the literal and historical lynch mobs. One of the most repugnant uses of the phrase was probably Clarence Thomas's claim that he was being subjected to a "high-tech lynching" because he had been credibly accused of sexual harassment.[21]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. The latter is typical of jurisdictions, such as the EU and Council of Europe member states, which have abolished capital punishment (in peacetime)
  2. The investigation was done in 2011 and published by The Washington Post.
  3. For example, if I kill you because you hold political belief X, and the government arrests me and tries me, it is not an extrajudicial execution. However, if I kill you because you hold political belief X, and the government ignores it or gives me an "unrelated" reward, it is an extrajudicial execution. Of course, either way, if you kill me instead because I'm attempting to kill you, it is not an extrajudicial execution regardless.
  4. Good examples of this include present-day Iraq and Somalia.
  5. This is not the origin of the French loan word "picnic", as a rather silly urban legend claims.[17]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them by Jason Stanley (2018) Random House. ISBN 9780525511830.
  2. Universal Declaration of Human Rights
  3. USA: One year in detention without charge (9 June 2003) Amnesty International.
  4. See the Wikipedia article on Unlawful enemy combatant.
  5. Joint Publication 3-63, Detainee Operations, United States Department of Defense, 13 November 2014, p. I-4.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Country Profiles Amnesty International]]. Retrieved on 26 September 2015.
  7. Reprieve - Major study sheds new light on CIA secret prisons. Reprieve. Retrieved on 26 September 2015.
  8. Fact Sheet: Extraordinary Rendition American Civil Liberties Union.
  9. Has Obama banned torture? Yes and no by Rupert Stone (December 1, 2015 2:00AM ET) Al Jazeera America.
  10. EU endorses damning report on CIA (14 February 2007, 17:33 GMT) BBC.
  11. A staggering map of the 54 countries that reportedly participated in the CIA’s rendition program by Max Fisher (February 5, 2013 at 3:21 p.m. EST) The Washington Post.
  12. Jewish leaders react to Rodrigo Duterte Holocaust remarks (30 September 2016) BBC.
  13. Iran Says It Has Decided How to React to U.S. Strike That Killed Soleimani by Amos Harel et al. (Jan 4, 2020) Haaretz. "The United States carried out a strike that killed Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, head of the of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps — Quds Force, the Pentagon said Friday.
    Tehran has vowed "crushing revenge" for the killing, saying that the assassination will double motivation to retaliate against the U.S. and Israel."
  14. Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918 (1919) National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
  15. Dyer Anti-lynching Bill by Randy Stakeman and Jackson Stakeman The Walter White Project, University of Southern California.
  16. Photographs & Illustrations American Lynching (archived from December 16, 2018). WARNING: Graphic content.
  17. Blacks, Picnics and Lynchings by David Pilgrim (January 2004) Ferris State University.
  18. Men, Mobs, and Law: Anti-lynching and Labor Defense in U.S. Radical History by Rebecca N. Hill (2009) Duke University Press. ISBN 9780822342809.
  19. This Map Shows Over a Century of Documented Lynchings in the United States: Mapping the history of racial terror by Danny Lewis (January 24, 2017) Smithsonian.
  20. Zavei, M. (December 20, 2018). Senate Unanimously Passes Bill Making Lynching a Federal Crime by Mihir Zaveri (Dec. 20, 2018) The New York Times.
  21. An Outline of the Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas Controversy Center for History and New Media, George Mason University (archived from September 2, 2000).