Extrajudicial punishment is often a feature of politically repressive regimes, but even self-proclaimed or internationally recognized democracies have been known to use extrajudicial punishment under certain circumstances.
Although the legal use of capital punishment is generally decreasing around the world, individuals or groups deemed threatening—or even simply "undesirable"—to a government may nevertheless be targeted for punishment by a regime or its representatives. Such actions typically happen quickly, with security forces acting on a covert basis, performed in such a way as to avoid a massive public outcry and/or international criticism that would reflect badly on the state. Sometimes, the killers are agents outside the government. Criminal organizations, such as La Cosa Nostra, have reportedly been employed for such a purpose.
Another possibility is for uniformed security forces to punish a victim, but under circumstances that make it appear as self-defense or suicide. The former can be accomplished by planting recently-fired weapons near the body, the latter by fabricating evidence suggesting suicide. In such cases, it can be difficult to prove that the perpetrators acted wrongly. Because of the dangers inherent in armed confrontation, even police or soldiers who might strongly prefer to take an enemy alive may still kill to protect themselves or civilians, and potentially cross the line into extrajudicial murder. Only in the most obvious cases, such as the Operation Flavius triple killing or the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes, will the authorities admit that "kill or capture" was replaced with "shoot on sight".
A "disappearance" occurs where someone who is believed to have been targeted for extrajudicial execution does not reappear alive. Their ultimate fate is thereafter unknown or never fully confirmed.
Extrajudicial punishment may be planned and carried out by a particular branch of a state, without informing other branches, or even without having been ordered to commit such acts. Other branches sometimes tacitly approve of the punishment after the fact. They can also genuinely disagree with it, depending on the circumstances, especially when complex intragovernment or internal policy struggles also exist within a state's policymaking apparatus.
In times of war, natural disaster, societal collapse, or in the absence of an established system of criminal justice, there may be increased incidences of extrajudicial punishment. In such circumstances, police or military personnel may be unofficially authorised to punish severely individuals involved in looting, rioting and other violent acts, especially if caught in flagrante delicto. This position is sometimes itself corrupted, resulting in the death of merely inconvenient persons, that is, relative innocents who are just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
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