As dictators target citizens abroad, few safe spaces remain
Tahir Imin knew that romances sometimes end. So he wasn’t expecting the long arm of global authoritarianism when the woman he planned to marry broke up in March.
Maybe he should have.
He had fled the oppression of Uyghurs by China, a predominantly Muslim minority, in 2017. From his new home in Washington, DC, he spoke about Beijing’s indoctrination camps and control systems, which he and the government Americans have called genocide.
Threat messages poured in, some from people identifying themselves as Chinese police. He learned that his mother and brother had been arrested on false charges, which is common for the family of Uyghur activists abroad.
But Mr. Imin persisted in creating an Uyghur rights organization. He fell in love with a Uyghur exile living in the United States. Right after she put an end to it, Chinese authorities accused Mr. Imin of helping a separatist group.
“Later she called me and said, ‘Today I’m going to tell you why I left you,'” he said. She had received a call from her parents in China, who told her that the police were with them and ordered them to ask her for information about Mr. Imin’s relationship.
“I realized that my relationship with you would hurt my parents, so it’s best to cut it off,” he recalls telling her.
“I said I got it,” he said. “This stuff happens all the time. “
And not just to Chinese Uyghurs. Authoritarian governments large and small are increasingly crossing their borders to intimidate, kidnap and kill troublesome emigrants.
In the past two weeks alone, Belarus has forced a civilian airliner to land in its territory, arresting a journalist on board. Turkish spies captured a citizen living in Kenya whose uncle is a prominent dissident, and took him to Turkey. And the Hong Kong authorities hurry an Israeli web hosting company to shut down the London democracy activists website.
“There just aren’t many safe spaces anymore,” said Alexander Cooley, a Columbia University political scientist who studies what academics call transnational repression.
“It’s getting a lot more routine,” Mr. Cooley said. “Just more and more daring.”
Refugees, exiles and dual citizens who speak out face forced renditions based on trumped-up accusations. They are summoned to their home embassies, never to return. They are hacked, threatened, tarnished by disinformation.
Freedom House, an advocacy group, recorded 608 such incidents since 2014 – a number that researchers see as the tip of the iceberg – led by 31 governments. The operations reached at least 79 countries, including almost all of Europe.
In this way, authoritarians do more than silence critics and whistleblowers. They are sending the message that no one is beyond their reach, pressuring entire diasporas to remain silent.
With few exceptions, dictators who cross borders have suffered little consequence, apparently confirming that the jurisdiction of authoritarianism now extends even into the cities and suburbs of the so-called free world.
A new playbook
Repression has always crossed borders. A Soviet assassin killed Leon Trotsky, leader of a dissident faction, in Mexico in 1940. During the Cold War, both sides regularly aided Allied governments in capturing or killing dissidents abroad.
But the US-led war on terror has ushered in a new era. Washington, in partnership with some of the world’s most oppressive states, has sponsored the rendition of dozens of suspected terrorists and targeted many more with drone strikes. The Americans insisted that this was a world war, in which sovereignty and citizenship should be put aside.
The campaign set a standard of governments crossing each other’s borders to wipe out suspected terrorists – a label dictators quickly applied to separatists and activists.
Also in the 2000s, a series of so-called color revolutions in former Soviet states led an increasingly authoritarian Russia to cooperate with regional governments to target each other’s democratic movements. He established many methods which will then be deployed globally.
Then came the democratic protests of the Arab Spring of 2011. Many were staged online, including by swarms of ordinary citizens living abroad.
The increase in migration means that there are more diasporas. And yet, they are closer than ever. The penetration of social media and smartphones allows them to shape daily discussions at home, challenging governments’ control over public information and sentiment.
In response, the authoritarians set out to coerce overseas communities almost as aggressively as they did at home.
Despite all the attention to Russian operations like the poisoning of a former spy in a small British town or the widespread persecution of Uyghurs by China abroad, researchers say the main trendsetter has been Turkey. .
After an attempted military coup in 2016, state agents began picking up overseas Turks linked to an exiled splinter group, seizing 80 people in 18 countries, officials said. Turkey has repeatedly pushed the United States to expel the group’s leader, Fethullah Gulen.
Turkey has also inundated Interpol – an agency that distributes arrest warrants internationally – with names of foreign nationals it has accused of terrorism. Many appeared to have been targeted for association with the Gulenists, who also run schools and businesses.
Yet a number of governments have complied. Kosovo expelled six, all teachers, sparking outrage there. Turkey touted the campaign as a major success.
“Once they saw they could get away with it, it became standard operation,” Mr. Cooley said. Other countries quickly followed.
“It’s not just Russia and it’s not just China. It’s Rwanda, Turkey. It’s Tajikistan, ”he added. “It has become a much more standard part of the autocrats’ playbook in the smaller and middle powers.”
Authoritarianism Without Borders
Apparently every few months another government adopts new methods of cross-border repression, expanding the reach of global authoritarianism.
Last fall, a Rwandan activist, portrayed in the film “Hotel Rwanda” for saving hundreds from genocide, disappeared after flying from Chicago to Dubai. He reappeared in handcuffs in Rwanda. Critics accused the government of kidnapping him and fabricating terrorism charges to silence a political rival.
Such cases often refer to larger campaigns. Rwandans in Europe and the United States report frequently to have received threats, including of prejudice to his family in Rwanda, for having criticized the government of the country.
Many also say they are being targeted by the propaganda that inspires waves of online harassment – a tactic increasingly prevalent around the world. While not as serious a danger as kidnapping, it is diffuse enough to force everyday emigrants to think twice before speaking out.
Increasingly, despots are using foreign law enforcement mechanisms to suppress without resorting to assassination or restitution.
Some report the passports of journalists or activists living abroad have been stolen, leading the host countries to deport them.
Others take advantage of economic and political ties. Several countries that have expelled Turkish nationals have close ties to the Turkish government. China has pressured Egypt to deport a dozen Uyghurs living there and Thailand to deport a hundred.
Most of the time, they upload questionable accusations to Interpol, hoping that docile or disinterested officials will comply somewhere. Often they do. Thai police arrested a Bahraini political exile while on vacation in Thailand. US immigration authorities imprisoned a russian exile for more than a year, having revoked his visa on Russian charges of money laundering.
In the Freedom House study, more than half of the incidents recorded included allegations of terrorism, often through Interpol.
While authorities learn to double-check when foreign despots cite terrorism, warrants often mention money laundering instead.
The hijacked airliner over Belarus, Cooley said, indicated how stretched the standards were.
“It does not happen in isolation,” he said. “It’s the result of pushing boundaries in so many different ways that something like that becomes envisioned. ”
The same is true, he argued, of the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist whom government agents killed and dismembered after luring him to a consulate in Istanbul.
Both have drawn heavy international condemnation. But most incidents don’t.
“There is very little impact,” Mr. Cooley said. As the number of cases rises, he added, global inaction amounts to “a very clear green light.”
A green light
Last week, Mr. Imin, the Uyghur activist, uploaded a photo of himself with other volunteers. A few days later, one of the people in the photo, who is based in a Western European country, called him in a panic.
Police visited her parents, who live in China, and said she was involved in dangerous political activities. Her parents called her begging her to stop. She had no choice, she told Mr. Imin.
“It’s a very common story,” he said. Uyghurs in the diaspora, he said, often receive panicked phone calls from their homes or threat messages from Chinese police that cite a recent meeting they attended or social media posts.
The message is clear: You might as well have coffee with the wrong person, or say the wrong thing online, and your family may pay dearly.
“People will say, ‘I really want to do something, but if I speak up, my brother and sister will be put in jail,’” he said.
This is perhaps the biggest impact of cross-border repression: the millions of overseas citizens who have to live with some degree of fear. Every incident sends the message that they will never be totally free from the restrictions and dangers of the home.
“A single murder or rendition sends ripples through a vast circle of people,” the Freedom House report said. Even campaigns of disinformation or harassment “create an atmosphere of fear among the exiles which permeates daily activities”.
Diasporas like Mr. Imin’s are learning that, even in the United States, they are often on their own.
“I always get messages from people saying they know me, they know my secrets,” he said. Some claim to call from his hometown a veiled threat to harm his friends and family.
Such calls are now familiar in his circles, he said. “It’s now part of our lives. “