The Authoritarian's Long Arm

How Dictators Use Borders to Silence Dissidents.

It was a particularly perilous year to be a Belarusian political dissident last year—not just in Belarus, but around the world. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko began spreading his dictatorial techniques abroad in 2021, after months of forcefully suppressing peaceful opposition protests at home. His targets included long-time dissidents as well as newcomers to the field of criticism. While many of his activities went unnoticed on a global scale, others drew widespread attention. For example, in May 2021, Lukashenko's dictatorship staged a bogus bomb threat to force a passenger airplane flying between Greece and Lithuania to land in Minsk so that Roman Pratasevich, a young journalist and political activist on board, could be detained on the tarmac. Later, during the Tokyo Olympics, Belarusian authorities attempted to deport track and field athlete Krystsina Tsimanouskaya when she insulted the national team's coaching staff—but were only stopped by Japanese police.

Both episodes are examples of what is known as transnational repression, or governments' efforts to silence critics beyond national lines. Safe spaces for dissent are gradually diminishing around the world, according to a new report from Freedom House, a nonpartisan democracy advocacy organization. We show that authoritarian nations are increasingly cooperating to help discover, intimidate, jail, and expel their dissidents, based on a data collection of 735 documented episodes of explicit transnational repression that happened between 2014 and 2021. Furthermore, due to the tight asylum laws of many democracies that could otherwise serve as safe havens for dissidents, there are fewer safe havens for people fleeing persecution. If democracies want to strengthen liberal ideals and human rights around the world, they should begin by accepting individuals who risk their lives to oppose authoritarian regimes.

NOWHERE TO TURN

Worryingly, autocrats are increasingly assisting one another in the pursuit of dissidents across borders. In 2021, authoritarian regimes committed the great majority of transnational repression—74 percent—on the territory of other authoritarian states. Between 2014 and 2020, 58 percent of crimes recorded by Freedom House were perpetrated by and occurred in authoritarian countries, which is 16 percentage points higher than the norm. Transnational repression in nations with scant concern for civil and political rights and weak rule of law traditions, such as Tajikistan and Thailand, is particularly pernicious since it attracts less attention from the media, civil society, and the government. Despite the fact that Pratasevich's arrest and Tsimanouskaya's ordeal received widespread international attention and even contributed to the application of multilateral penalties, the majority of Belarus's transnational repression campaign in 2021 went virtually undetected. This is due to the fact that the majority of the events took place in a nearby totalitarian country: Russia.

The dictatorship of Russian President Vladimir Putin has been a willing accomplice in Lukashenko's persecution of opponents and dissidents. Extradition requests for Belarusians in Russia who were participating in antigovernment protests in Belarus were regularly allowed by Russian courts, which have traditionally been unconcerned about the rights of indigenous political activists. Even after the European Court of Human Rights issued an opinion forbidding his return due to worries about torture, Russia repatriated a mixed martial arts fighter who, according to Radio Free Europe, had already been tortured and shot with rubber bullets while in police detention in Belarus. His was one of 22 situations in which Belarusians were detained, extradited, or threatened with extradition in Russia last year.

In certain situations, the Russian state has taken a more active part in smuggling persons out of Russia who are wanted by Lukashenko's dictatorship without going through any legal channels. In April 2021, Russian authorities allegedly kidnapped two Belarusian men—one of whom was a US citizen—from a Moscow hotel and handed them over to Belarusian security forces, who then transported them over 400 kilometers to Minsk. Both men have long been associated with the Belarusian opposition and are now accused of plotting a coup against the government.

Russian authorities have also aided autocrats in suppressing dissidents. Consider the story of Izzat Amon, a human rights activist from Tajikistan who had obtained Russian citizenship and had lived in Russia for decades. Amon led a charity organization in Moscow that assisted Central Asian migrants in finding work and obtaining legal immigration status in Russia. In March 2021, Amon was deported from Russia, and upon his return to Tajikistan, he was sentenced to nine years in prison on shady fraud accusations. When a Turkmen activist who had been residing in Russia for six years vanished in October 2021, Russian authorities reported that he had freely departed the country. However, according to information collected by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, he was seized by Russian police and deported to Turkmenistan, where he is being kept incommunicado by security forces.

Russia's willingness to help fellow autocracies is shared by other countries. Authorities in Thailand illegally returned opposition activists to Cambodia in November 2021, where they faced politically driven charges and safety concerns. In May, the UAE government kept a teenage Chinese activist who was transiting through Dubai airport for weeks, allowing Chinese consular officials to try to persuade him to return to China. The Turkish government, which is a prominent practitioner of transnational repression, has bullied international activists living within its borders on behalf of other authoritarian nations. These results foreshadow a bleak future for civil society organizations, political dissidents, and pro-democracy activists, who now face the risk of punishment wherever they go.

AIDING AND ABETTING

Traditional safe havens for critics and activists are becoming less friendly as autocrats increasingly combine to crush opposition. Turkey, for example, was once a safe haven for Uyghurs, but it is now a perilous area for the Uyghur diaspora. Turkish authorities persecuted Uyghur activists by detaining them and threatening to deport them to China in 2021. Beijing ratified an extradition deal inked by Ankara in 2017, raising fears that Uyghurs in Turkey could be imprisoned on false accusations and sent to China. Turkey's increasing repression of Uyghurs has occurred amid a backdrop of deepening economic and political ties between Ankara and Beijing, spurred by Turkey's increasing need for investment and trade with the Asian superpower.

Turkish authorities also targeted the country's small Turkmen diaspora, arresting activists critical of Ashgabat's strongman administration and attempting to prevent protests in front of Turkmenistan's embassy. The crackdown coincided with the November 2021 summit conference of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States, a regional bloc that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan intends to lead and in which Turkmenistan has observer status.

Erdogan has also abandoned efforts to seek accountability for one of the most terrible acts of transnational repression conducted on Turkish soil in order to preserve relations with Saudi Arabia after years of tensions. A Turkish court agreed in April 2021 to transfer the trial in the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian dissident and writer, to the same Saudi authorities that had been involved in his murder.

Nondemocratic governments work together to carry out transnational repression because it is politically expedient and because they share a set of illiberal ideals that deny citizens the right to criticize those in positions of power. Authoritarian practices and beliefs are on the rise right now: according to a Freedom House report released earlier this year, democracy has been declining for 16 years, and political rights and civil freedoms are being attacked even in established democracies like India and the United States. These opposing patterns converge to make an unpleasant prediction: autocrats will have greater possibilities to cooperate in the future.

LOCKING THE GATES

Transnational repression is exacerbated by global declines in civil liberties and political rights, as well as the erosion of checks on human rights violations and power abuses, because people fleeing persecution from one authoritarian government are likely to find themselves under the thumb of another. Dissidents escaping authoritarian regimes are frequently funneled towards locations ruled by nondemocratic governments due to geographical proximity, lenient visa regimes, and severe asylum procedures of democratic nations. Belarusians and Central Asians travel to Russia, where they do not require a visa. People fleeing Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam frequently cross into Thailand, which is just across the border. Uyghurs flee to Egypt or Turkey after fleeing China. These locations are appealing because they are easily accessible; nevertheless, while they may give temporary shelter, they do not provide long-term protection.

The best safeguard against international repression is to live in a strong democracy with strong legal systems and high levels of security. However, there is no assurance of safety. In Europe and the United States, authoritarian governments struggle to pursue dissidents, but they have had some success. The US Department of Justice revealed last year that Iranian regime officials engaged a private investigator to gather information on Masih Alinejad, a prominent Iranian-American journalist and women's rights activist, as part of a plot to abduct her from her Brooklyn home and send her to Iran. Last year, a Swedish court found a man and a woman guilty of assassinating and attempting to murder Tumso Abdurakhmanov, a Chechen asylum seeker and long-time critic of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, as part of a Chechen government plan.

This issue is exacerbated by rising admissions obstacles, which are progressively separating democracies from asylum seekers, refugees, and other immigrants. Democratic countries, which are already geographically separated from many repressive regimes, have spent money to construct physical and legal barriers to immigrants. In 2016, the EU and Turkey negotiated an agreement to prohibit asylum seekers from entering Europe through Greece. Millions of individuals were effectively detained as a result of the strategy in Turkey, which already targets its own opponents abroad and increasingly harasses international activists at home.

The United Kingdom's intention, announced in April, to send asylum seekers arriving in the country by unlawful ways to Rwanda for processing and placement is another notable example of an asylum policy that may likely promote transnational repression. Rwanda is ruled by an authoritarian state that is actively involved in international repression. Rwanda's track record is well known to British officials. In 2019, the Rwandan government used surveillance spyware on Faustin Rukundo, a UK resident and ardent critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame. According to the BBC, the Rwandan High Commission in London has been pressuring Rwandans living in the UK to swear allegiance to the dictatorship as recently as 2020. Given this recent history, the United Kingdom should be well aware that delegating authority for the asylum procedure to Rwanda will only aid authoritarian governments aiming to persecute dissidents by entrusting political refugees to the care of authoritarian governments.

IT STARTS AT HOME

As part of the mission of preserving democracy and human rights at home and abroad, democracies can and should hold perpetrators of transnational repression accountable. They can do so by imposing targeted sanctions, withdrawing security support, and punishing individuals guilty for transnational repression in their own countries. Democratic countries should also collaborate to prevent the misuse of mechanisms designed to improve international security cooperation. Authoritarian governments are increasingly employing these mechanisms, such as the International Criminal Police Organization's Red Notices, which warn member countries of internationally wanted fugitives, to legitimately jail and extradite dissidents. But, in order to tackle the larger challenge of emerging global authoritarianism, democracies must first and foremost adapt their attitude to asylum, especially as nondemocratic countries increasingly collaborate to suppress dissent.

Democracies should stop offshore their immigration and asylum procedures and instead allow people to petition for refuge on their own soil, where they will be better protected from authoritarian nations' persecution, repression, and violence. Governments should also provide permanent protections for people who qualify for asylum, rather than relying on temporary refugee status, which exposes individuals and their families to persecution in their home countries. As long as democratic states establish increasingly more stringent asylum policies, vulnerable people will be trapped in regions of the world where autocrats dominate.

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