The authoritarian regimes of the world are persecuting their adversaries living abroad more vehemently than ever before, and some literally get away with murder.
A blatant example of the impunity enjoyed by some governments is the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose country called US President Joe Biden a “pariah” for the murder and mutilation of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
But in June, Saudi Arabia made amends with Turkey — where the assassination took place — and Biden decided to take the kingdom on a tour of the Middle East.
Experts say transnational repression of opposition figures is nothing new, but as digital technologies have made it easier for dissidents to penetrate authoritarian regimes from across borders, they have fueled the ire of strongmen as rarely before.
“The threat perception of dictators or these repressive regimes has increased,” said Marcus Michaelson, a researcher on authoritarianism at the Free University in Brussels.
Between 2014 and 2021, according to US watchdog Freedom House, there were at least 735 direct, physical incidents of transnational repression carried out by 36 governments, most notably those of China, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Rwanda.
Four regimes were listed in 2021, including Belarus, which diverted a plane to arrest an opposition figure.
‘Intimidation to murder’
Spectacular actions such as the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018, or the 2019 murder in Berlin of Georgian Chechen Zelimkhan Khangoshvili – attributed to Russia – draw the world’s attention, but much of the repression is happening. below the radar .
“The range of tactics ranges from intimidation to murder,” said Amnesty International France’s Katia Roux.
Turkish journalist Can Dundar, who runs a website and radio station targeting Turkey and Turkish immigrants from exile in Germany, has become a target for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s secret apparatus.
“In the first year, we found a Turkish camera crew (…) who filmed our office and gave all the details of our office, including our address and our daily work schedule, what time we get there, what time we get out etc., and it shows as the ‘headquarters of the traitors’ who are plotting against Turkey,” he told AFP.
Turkish intelligence “is very active, especially in Germany and France,” he said, recalling the attack by three men on a Turkish journalist in Berlin in July 2021, who warned him to stop writing on certain topics.
Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui, who fled to France after a kidnapping attempt he attributed to his home country’s security forces, said he still didn’t feel really safe in exile, just “safer”.
In 2020, a Pakistani intelligence officer told Siddiqui’s parents that “if Taha thinks he is safe in Paris, he is wrong. We can reach anyone anywhere”.
The threat came the same year as the suspicious deaths of a Pakistani journalist in Sweden and a Pakistani human rights activist in Canada, and a year before a British court convicted a man of conspiracy to murder a Pakistani blogger in Dutch exile.
“They’ve made me paranoid, suspicious and scared, even in exile,” says Siddiqui, who opened “The Dissident Club” in Paris, a bar dedicated to discussion, exhibitions and screenings.
Digital technologies are giving repressive regimes an entirely new toolkit for evading the political costs or diplomatic risks that can come with physical action against dissidents, with “almost no repercussions,” Michaelson said.
They have a “commercial market for surveillance technologies” at their disposal, such as Israeli-made spy software Pegasus, which is cost-effective, he said.
“So they don’t have to invest a lot of manpower or send agents to spy on dissidents abroad,” he said.
A prime example is the Egyptian opposition figure Ayman Nour, a friend of Khashoggi, who was exiled to Turkey.
Citizen Lab, a technology, human rights and security research agency, said it found two sets of spyware on Nour’s cell phone – Pegasus and Predator – which is operated by two different governments.
‘You have to stop’
Nour called espionage “a form of organized crime” and said he always thought of his phone as “a radio that anyone can listen to.”
Amnesty International has identified 11 government clients for Pegasus, allowing “everyone to be monitored in a completely invisible and untraceable way,” Roux said.
Activists in China defending the rights of the Uyghur minority, against whom Western countries say China commits “genocide,” often find that digital threats precede physical violence, Michaelson said.
Meiirbek Sailanbek, a member of the Kazakh community in China, said he deleted all Chinese apps from his phone when he moved to neighboring Kazakhstan, removing the numbers of his brother and sister who still live in Xinjiang, the Uyghur Autonomous Region. live in northwestern China.
When the authorities of Kazakhstan arrested the head of the NGO Atajurt – with which Sailanbek had joined in writing social posts under a pseudonym – he fled the country and settled in Paris.
But Kazakhstan authorities have identified him and the Chinese government has since threatened his brother and sister with jail time if he continues his activism.
“Meiirbek, your sister and brother are in danger, you must stop,” his mother said.
Sailanbek risks arrest if he returns to China or Kazakhstan, but he also considers Turkey, Pakistan, Arab countries and Russia off-limits because he believes they would yield to Chinese pressure to extradite him.
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and has been published from a syndicated feed.)