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Assassination to intimidation: regimes target dissidents across national borders

Assassination, assault, unlawful deportations, spyware and family intimidation are some methods authoritarian regimes use against activists and dissidents.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya speaks to European lawmakers
Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, left, speaks to European lawmakers about the Belarusian regime's crackdown on dissenting voices (AN/European Parliament)

WASHINGTON (AN) — Assassination, assault, unlawful deportations, spyware, family intimidation: These are but a sampling of the methods employed by authoritarian regimes — such as China and Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia — as they track down and silence social activists and political dissidents beyond their national borders.

Transnational repression is spreading as authoritarian regimes act in harmony to threaten, detain, and repatriate exiles, according to a new report by Washington-based Freedom House.

The report, Defending Democracy in Exile: Policy Responses to Transnational Repression, finds that last year, four governments — those of Belarus, Nigeria, Comoros, and Algeria — targeted dissidents abroad for the first time in the eight-year period under study. This brings to 36 the number of governments that have physically harmed their nationals overseas since 2014. Belarus’s regime emerged as a leading perpetrator, accounting for nearly a third of the incidents recorded in 2021.

“Autocrats have joined forces to brazenly target exiled dissidents and erode basic liberties around the world,” said Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House.

Governments have targeted individuals and communities in at least 84 countries, the report finds. Here in the United States, perpetrators of transnational repression include the governments of China, Egypt, Iran, Russia, and Rwanda, among others. Since September 2020, the U.S. Justice Department has indicted 19 people for engaging in transnational repression in the U.S., with some accused of plotting abductions and assaults.

Last July, the Justice Department unsealed details of an alleged plot to kidnap an Iranian journalist and women’s rights activist living in the U.S. since 2009.

According to the indictment, the government of Iran hired a private investigator to track the movements of Masih Alinejad and her family in New York.

Federal prosecutors say that agents of the government in Tehran considered several ways to kidnap her, including using a fast boat to take her from Brooklyn to Venezuela, from where she could be taken to Iran. When that, and other schemes, failed — including threatening her mother and other family members in Iran — prosecutors say that a private investigator paid by Iran followed her movements.

U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet warned last year that reports of spying with military-grade malware on activists, dissidents and journalists “seem to confirm some of the worst fears.”

'All have a critical role to play'

For “sheer breadth and global scale” China’s campaign to track and punish dissidents around the world is unparalleled, Freedom House says.

China targets entire ethnic and religious groups —including Uighurs, Tibetans, and Falun Gong practitioners — numbering in the hundreds of thousands globally. And it doesn’t stop there. China ignores international borders as the government sets its sights on political dissidents, human rights activists, journalists, and former insiders accused of corruption.

Freedom House says these cases are but a sampling of “a much broader system of surveillance, harassment, and intimidation that leaves many overseas Chinese and exile minorities feeling that China's Communist Party is watching them and constraining their ability to exercise basic rights even when living in a foreign democracy.”

There is nothing subtle in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s preferred method of silencing dissidents abroad: “A surprisingly common tactic is assassination,” said Freedom House.

Russia accounts for seven of 26 assassinations or assassination attempts since 2014, according to Freedom House. It is also responsible for assaults, detentions, unlawful deportations, and renditions in eight countries, mostly in Europe.

The Kremlin targets include those who may have defected to NATO member states and cooperate with their intelligence agencies; those who were considered to have previously engaged in armed conflict against Russia; or those who have run afoul of security services through business or political activities.

Freedom House recommends that nations that host exile dissidents and activists make it a national security priority to combat transnational repression while holding perpetrators accountable. The organization likewise calls on democracies to be more open to asylum seekers.

“Governments, companies, international organizations, and civil society all have a critical role to play in developing and strengthening strategies to address transnational repression,” said Yana Gorokhovskaia, who leads Freedom House’s work on transnational repression. “There are many pragmatic steps that can be taken — from training law enforcement about the tactics authoritarians use to investing in strong digital security measures."