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The offense of “sedition” — often characterized as criminalizing the incitement of rebellion against the government — is an archaic crime that is frequently used to target political speech. Introduced in the sixteenth century in England specifically to suppress dissent, sedition laws spread through the British colonies. These laws still persist in some legal systems, and while there are reforms underway in some of those jurisdictions, in a few outliers, the offense continues to be prosecuted — and in some there has been a resurgence in cases.

Sedition laws have been criticized by the United Nations (“U.N.”), human rights experts, courts, legislatures, advocates, and others for being a weapon used by governments to violate the right to freedom of expression. Moreover, the significant criminal penalties that usually accompany sedition laws have a chilling effect on political debate and can undermine democratic processes.

This report examines the movement to repeal or reform sedition laws, the reasons for these efforts, and abuses that take place where the charge of sedition continues to be used. It proceeds in three parts: first, a brief overview of sedition laws and the criticisms they have faced at the international and regional levels; second, an update on the substantial progress Commonwealth States have made to reform these laws; and third, an overview of several examples of States where prosecutors have weaponized sedition laws to stifle dissent, including examples arising from TrialWatch’s monitoring experience.