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How authoritarian regimes hunt down their opponents abroad

#authoritarian #regimes #hunt #opponents

The world’s authoritarian regimes are pursuing their opponents abroad more vigorously than ever, and some are getting away with literally murder.

A glaring example of some governments’ impunity is Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose country US President Joe Biden has described as a “pariah” for the 2018 assassination and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

But in June, Saudi reconciled with Turkey – where the killing happened – and Biden decided to include the kingdom in a tour of the Middle East.

Experts say the cross-border repression of opposition figures is nothing new, but since digital technologies have made it easier for dissidents to needle authoritarian regimes across borders, they have fueled the ire of strongmen like never before.

“The perception of a threat from dictators or these repressive regimes has increased,” said Marcus Michaelson, authoritarianism researcher at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels.

According to US regulator Freedom House, between 2014 and 2021 there were at least 735 direct, physical incidents of transnational repression carried out by 36 governments, most notably China, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Rwanda.

Four regimes joined the list in 2021, including Belarus, which diverted a plane to arrest an opposition figure.

– “Harassment to Murder” –

Spectacular acts like the 2018 poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal in the UK or the 2019 assassination of Georgian Chechen Selimkhan Khangoshvili in Berlin – attributed to Russia – grab the world’s attention, but much of the repression happens under the radar .

“The range of tactics ranges from harassment to murder,” said Amnesty International France’s Katia Roux.

The Turkish journalist Can Dundar, who runs a website and radio station for Turkey and the Turkish diaspora from his German exile, has become a target of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s secret apparatus.

“In the first year we found a Turkish camera crew (…) who recorded our office and gave all the details of our office, including our address and our daily work schedule, when we are there, what time we arrive out etc. and it as ‘traitors’ headquarters ‘ who are making plans against Turkey,” he told AFP.

The Turkish secret service “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 about certain topics.

Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui, who fled to France after a kidnapping attempt he blamed on his home country’s security services, said he still doesn’t really feel safe in exile, just “safer”.

In 2020, a Pakistani intelligence officer told Siddiqui’s parents, “If Taha thinks he’s safe in Paris, he’s 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 contract killing a Pakistani blogger in exile in the Netherlands.

“They made me paranoid, suspicious and scared, even in exile,” said Siddiqui, who opened The Dissident Club in Paris, a bar dedicated to discussions, exhibitions and film screenings.

Digital technologies give repressive regimes a whole new set of tools to sidestep the political costs or diplomatic risks that physical action against dissidents can entail, “with almost no consequences,” Michaelson said.

There is a “commercial market for surveillance technologies” available to them, such as the Israeli-made Pegasus spy software, which are inexpensive, he said.

“So you don’t have to invest a lot of staff or send agents to spy on dissidents abroad,” he said.

A telling example is Egyptian opposition figure Ayman Nour, a friend of Khashoggi who lives in exile in Turkey.

Citizen Lab, a technology, human rights and security research organization, said it found two types of spyware on Nour’s phone — Pegasus and Predator — operated by two different governments.

– ‘You have to stop’ –

Calling espionage “a form of organized crime,” Nour said he’s always thought of his phone as “a radio for everyone to hear.”

Amnesty International has identified 11 government customers for Pegasus, allowing for “surveillance of anyone in a completely invisible and untraceable way,” Roux said.

Activists in China who defend the rights of the Uyghur minority, against whom Western countries say China is committing “genocide,” often find that digital threats precede physical violence, Michaelson said.

Meiirbek Sailanbek, a member of China’s Kazakh community, said he uninstalled all Chinese apps from his phone when he moved to neighboring Kazakhstan and deleted the numbers of his siblings who are still in Xinjiang, northwest China’s Uyghur Autonomous Region. Life.

When the Kazakh authorities arrested the head of the NGO Atajurt, who had joined Sailanbek to write social posts under a pseudonym, he fled the country and settled in Paris.

But Kazakh authorities identified him, and the Chinese government has since threatened his brother and sister with jail if he continues his activism.

“Meiirbek, your sister and brother are in danger, you have to stop,” said a message his mother sent him.

Sailanbek faces arrest if he returns to China or Kazakhstan, but he also considers Turkey, Pakistan, Arab nations and Russia taboo because he believes they would give in to Chinese pressure to extradite him.

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