WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Top officials in the U.S. Justice Department are encouraging prosecutors to consider sedition charges against protesters who have burned buildings and engaged in other violent activity, according to a memo seen by Reuters on Thursday.
Jeffrey Rosen, the department’s No. 2 official, wrote that he and Attorney General William Barr have told prosecutors that they do not need to prove that defendants were plotting to overthrow the U.S. government in order to invoke the rarely used law.
“In appropriate cases - for instance, where a group has conspired to take a federal courthouse or other federal property by force - you should consider a charge,” he wrote.
Barr has mounted an aggressive response to racial-justice protests that have sometimes escalated into violence this summer after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, a Black man.
He has deployed federal agents to disperse protests in Washington and Portland, Oregon, over the protests of local leaders, and urged federal prosecutors to bring criminal charges whenever possible.
Barr has blamed the violence on left-wing “antifa” activists, although prosecutors have also brought charges against members of right-wing militia groups. He has said there is no “systemic racism” in law enforcement.
The “seditious conspiracy” statute makes it a crime to plot to overthrow the U.S. government or wage war against it, but it also outlaws attempts to stop authorities from enforcing the law. Those found guilty face up to 20 years in prison.
U.S. authorities used the law to successfully prosecute people who traveled overseas to fight U.S. forces after the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.
Prosecutors also brought sedition charges against nine members of an anti-government militia in 2010 who were charged with plotting a violent uprising. That case was dismissed.
Reporting by Andy Sullivan; editing by Timothy Gardner
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