Historically, the term refers to conspiracy, and the actual deed of challenges to political rulers or sacred authority. Political criminals were likely to suffer much more gruesome punishment than ordinary or common criminals. Over time, however, the meanings of the term—and indeed attitudes toward political criminals themselves—have undergone significant shifts.
For example, politically motivated crimes came to be redefined as offences against the state in Western Europe during the 19th century, and there were also debates about whether offenders such as the Suffragettes and the Fenians should be dealt with in the conventional criminal justice system because of their self-proclaimed political status. By the late 20th century the political criminal had been transformed into the ‘arch-criminal’—the terrorist—who uses illegitimate violence against innocent citizens. However, human rights campaigners and some criminologists have also raised questions about the way in which the state itself can use its monopoly of force in a criminal way, in the pursuit of socio-political and military objectives (for example through torture, disappearance, and genocide). Some writers even argue that only states can be truly terrorist because they have the wholesale capacity to deploy terror as a systematic mode of domination and governance (see, for instance, N. Chomsky, The Culture of Terrorism, 1988).
Subjects: Sociology — History of Law.