Political repression is sometimes used synonymously with the term political discrimination (also known as politicism). It often is manifested through discriminatory policies, such as human rights violations, surveillance abuse, police brutality, imprisonment, involuntary settlement, stripping of citizen's rights, lustration and violent action or terror such as the murder, summary executions, torture, forced disappearance and other extrajudicial punishment of political activists, dissidents, or general population. Political repression can also be reinforced by means outside of written policy, such as by public and private media ownership and by self-censorship within the public.
Where political repression is sanctioned and organised by the state, it may constitute state terrorism, genocide, politicide or crimes against humanity. Systemic and violent political repression is a typical feature of dictatorships, totalitarian states and similar regimes. Acts of political repression may be carried out by secret police forces, army, paramilitary groups or death squads. Repressive activities have also been found within democratic contexts as well. This can even include setting up situations where the death of the target of repression is the end result.
If political repression is not carried out with the approval of the state, a section of government may still be responsible. An example is the FBI COINTELPRO operations in the United States between 1956 and 1971.
In some states, "repression" can be an official term used in legislation or the names of government institutions. For example, the Soviet Union had a legal policy of repression of political opposition defined in the penal code and Cuba under Fulgencio Batista had a secret police agency officially named the "Bureau for the Repression of Communist Activities".
Political conflict strongly increases the likelihood of state repression. This is arguably the most robust finding in social science research on political repression – civil wars are a strong predictor of repressive activity, as are other forms of challenges from non-government actors. States so often engage in repressive behaviors in times of civil conflict that the relationship between these two phenomena has been termed the "Law of Coercive Responsiveness". When their authority or legitimacy is threatened, regimes respond by overtly or covertly suppressing dissidents to eliminate the behavioral threat. State repression subsequently affects dissident mobilization, though the direction of this effect is still an open question. Some strong evidence suggests that repression suppresses dissident mobilization by reducing the capacity of challengers to organize, yet it is also feasible that challengers can leverage state repressive behavior to spur mobilization among sympathizers by framing repression as a new grievance against the state.