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Introduction

It is no secret that over the past several years, respect for democratic institutions and human rights has deteriorated around the world. From China to Venezuela, Burma to Belarus, authoritarian regimes have become more aggressive, more violent, and more brazen. At the same time, democracies have become slower and less interested in responding to the global rise of authoritarianism, as they are preoccupied with domestic troubles. American and allied forces withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving millions at the mercy of the Taliban. Western politicians continue to tolerate corruption and transnational repression. And celebrities and businesses are mostly indifferent to whitewashing attempts by authoritarian regimes. Overall, democracies have done a poor job at holding dictators accountable, further emboldening them to carry out their abuses with impunity. 

As we head into 2022, we take a look at three noteworthy trends in our end-of-year blog series, “Truth Ignited: 2021 in Review,” that have manifested themselves in the rise of authoritarianism across the globe: corruption, transnational repression, and sportswashing. 

Transnational Repression

By Kenza Bouanane

The practice of transnational repression — in which authoritarian regimes target dissidents outside of their national boundaries — is an increasingly pernicious global phenomenon. Though acts of transnational repression are difficult to record by design, since 2014, there have been approximately 608 documented cases of targeted transnational repression, carried out in 79 host countries, by 31 governments. 

The methods by which regimes carry out these extraterritorial abuses are now more broad-ranging than ever, particularly because of digital connectedness, the proliferation of spyware, and widespread impunity. In an effort to thwart dictators’ heavy hands and draft an effective response to end transnational repression at its peak, it is crucial to recognize its scope and the variations that it takes on. According to current literature on the topic, transnational repression typically manifests via four main methods: direct threats, co-opting with other countries, mobility control, and threats from a distance.

 

Direct Threats

Direct threats encompass intimidating physical hostilities against an individual abroad, ranging from assault to assassination. To date, it is estimated that there have been at least 26 transnational assassinations or assassination attempts since 2014.

Dictatorships often have an extensive definition of who qualifies as a threat. Iran’s regime, for instance, often labels activists as terrorists in order to justify its strong-arm tactics. The most brazen act by the Iranian regime in the United States (US) to date, was the kidnapping plot against Iranian activist Masih Alinejad in her Brooklyn home. In an indictment unsealed this summer, it was detailed that Iranian government intelligence operatives had been closely watching Alinejad with plans to kidnap and transport her to Venezuela — a country whose regime is a close ally of Iran — to then return her to Iran, where she would have faced almost certain execution.  

Meanwhile, in Rwanda, Paul Kagame’s regime also has a track record of harshly targeting dissidents abroad. Just this year, opposition politician Abdallah Bamporiki was shot and killed in Cape Town. A murder inquiry was launched and ruled this murder as a targeted killing by the Rwandan regime. Kagame strategically evades accountability by cozying up to Western leaders and, as a result, securing approximately 50% more government aid per person than surrounding countries in the Great Lakes region. 

 

Co-opting with Other Countries

Co-opting with other countries is a tactic in which regimes exert their diplomatic influence over the institutions of other countries, including democracies, in order to detain an individual with the ultimate goal of rendition. Co-optation can come in the form of an extradition request or official submission of criminal history to the host country that imperils or disrupts a target’s asylum process. 

This year, Interpol was widely criticized for reinstating Syria into its network after a 10 year ban, thereby allowing Assad’s regime to issue international arrest warrants. This leaves dissidents who have left the country particularly vulnerable.  This is a legitimate concern as we have seen this practice carried out in Morocco by China. Uyghur activist Yidiresi Aishan was in transit in Casablanca when he was arrested by Moroccan officials on the grounds of a terrorism Red Notice by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). This Red Notice has since been blocked, but illuminates the possibility of Syria following suit. 

In Belarus, opposition protests increased in the face of the 2020 rigged election that gave Belarusian dictator Alexander Lukashenko a sixth presidential term. In response, the regime began heightening its crackdown measures against dissidents, some of which have been labeled as acts of state terrorism. This summer, Raman Pratasevich — a journalist and vocal critic of Lukashenko — was on a commercial flight to Lithuania when it made an emergency landing in Minsk’s airport, escorted by Belarusian Air Force. As the co-founder of Nexta-Live, Pratasevich had an integral role in organizing protests, providing tips for countering police retaliation, and setting forth ways to lead a non-violent movement. In Minsk, Pratasevich was detained and charged with “incitement of mass riots and social hatred,” as well as “gross violation of public order.” The Belarusian state-owned outlet Belta later falsely reported that the plane had been rerouted instead due to a “bomb scare.” This episode sparked international outrage and a forceful condemnation from the European Union and the US government. 

 

Mobility Control

Mobility control is best described as a regime’s strategic leverage over government-issued documents, often via passport revocation, in order to threaten and pressure a target. Given that it is the least expensive tactic, it is no surprise that to date at least 21 of the 31 countries that use physical transnational repression tactics employ mobility controls against exiles.

Turkey is particularly notorious for targeting activists beyond its borders, and frequently engages in mobility control. The regime’s targeting of professional basketball player Enes Kanter is perhaps the most prominent example of its use of mobility control. As a vocal critic of the Erdogan regime’s human rights violations, Kanter had his passport temporarily seized in Romania in 2017. An Interpol Red Notice was issued against him, which impeded his ability to travel. 

Mobility control as an authoritarian tool continues to be a concern regarding Erdogan’s regime and the broader Middle East and North Africa region. This past March, for instance, activist Ghada Naguid fell victim to Egypt’s ruthless campaign against activists abroad. The regime accused her of “endangering national security” and she was arbitrarily stripped of her Egyptian nationality while living in Turkey, thereby becoming stateless. 

Similarly, the Cuban regime often utilizes passport revocation as a means of control of medical workers, Cuba’s largest labor export. In deploying thousands of medical personnel abroad to help mitigate health crises, the Cuban regime holds these workers under strict control. Passports are only valid during their time of deployment and doctors must obtain prior authorization to even leave the country. These medical personnel face criminal charges and passport revocation if discovered associating with critics of the Cuban revolution or violating the provisions of their deployment, which include limiting social relations within the host country. If a doctor is found to have violated these terms, he or she can face an entry ban of eight years.  

 

Threats From a Distance 

The last gambit of transnational repression are threats from a distance, which can take on various forms, including the recent increase of the instrumentalization of spyware or coercion by proxy — specifically, via the loved ones of the targeted dissident.

The brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi regime is a cornerstone illustration of how the use of spyware is being increasingly integrated to advance authoritarian agendas. Former United Nations Special Rapporteur Agnès Callamard detailed that MBS’ regime employed spyware to conduct the murder. Khashoggi’s phone was infected with a virus that was sold to the Saudi government and allowed the regime to surveil his whereabouts and communications. As it stands in 2021, the Saudi regime continues its brutal campaign of threats from a distance, while simultaneously whitewashing its abuses through a veil of modernity, including by financing Western artists to perform at extravagant events. 

With the improvement of digital connectedness, spyware for intelligence gathering against dissidents is no isolated affair. In July 2021, photojournalist Daniel Nemeth was investigating Hungarian politicians for a corruption exposé, when a forensic analysis directed by Direct36, a non-profit investigative journalism center, revealed that two of his phones had been hacked by the Israeli spyware, Pegasus. This story came at a time when the Pegasus Project revealed that the phone numbers of opposition leaders, lawyers, journalists, and Hungarian state secretaries were among the database of 50,000 numbers selected for surveillance and monitoring. 

China, one of the worst perpetrators of transnational repression, has also ramped up its practice of threats from a distance. Former OFF speaker and Uyghur journalist Gulchehra Hoja, now based in the US, provides uncensored news coverage related to concentration camps in the Uyghur Region (Xinjiang) located in northwestern China. In a recent attempt to intimidate her, the CCP released a video on state-owned Zhejiang News that condemned her journalism and simultaneously featured forced testimonials of Hoja’s family, stating they are living a life of normalcy. Hoja’s family members had previously been arrested, interned in camps, and denied passports. 

The CCP also threatened the family of dissident artist and Havel Prize laureate Badiucao in an effort to eclipse his 2018 exhibition in Hong Kong and detract attention away from his activism. Earlier this year, freedom of artistic expression triumphed after the CCP unsuccessfully pressured the Italian city of Brescia to cancel Badiucao’s first international solo exhibition at the Santa Giulia Museum: China is (not) near: Badiucao.

 

Policy Recommendations & Call to Action 

As regimes conduct their repressive tactics on a global level, dictators are sending a chilling message that no dissident is out of reach. Therefore, it is up to democracies and civil society to restrict the ability of authoritarian regimes to commit these acts going forward, and bring accountability abuses that have already been committed. 

The following are recommendations for democracies, global law enforcement, and civil society:

Sanctions: The Khashoggi Ban is a US sanction and visa restriction program that prohibits people who are involved in “serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities” on behalf of a foreign regime, from entering the US. Democratic countries globally should implement similar bans. 

Global law enforcement: Interpol’s Red Notices are requests for domestic law enforcement to provisionally arrest a person pending extradition or other legal action. These requests are, in theory, strictly disseminated for the pursuit of “apolitical ordinary law offenses,” and may not be employed for political gains. However, autocrats often abuse these requests to easily locate exiles and otherwise wanted opposition figures. In fact, 43% of Red Notices are issued by Russia’s fully authoritarian regime. Turkey has also been known to weaponize Interpol notices to render dissidents abroad and potentially subject them to ill-treatment, with Enes Kanter, mentioned before, just being one example. HRF has called upon all democracies to proceed with caution when pursuing Red Notices originating from Erdogan’s regime. Measures must be taken by global law enforcement to stop the abuse of Red Notices, including transparency of processes and increased analysis of all submissions to prevent groundless claims. 

Civil Society: Beyond bureaucratic measures, civil society organizations have an important role of meaningfully engaging with policymakers to provide nuanced research and insight through violation documentation to better inform approaches to combat all forms of transnational repression, including those that democracies may unknowingly be subordinate to. 

This year has shown that transnational repression is not an abating practice. As cases become more dangerous and multifarious, it is imperative that democratic countries take a categorical stance against transnational repression and mobilize to defend the globe’s bravest activists who have put their lives on the line to promote and protect human rights and democracy.

Conclusion

It is a recurring theme among commentators and analysts that democracy is under siege. Yet, 2021 has revealed that democratic movements show more determination and vigor than ever before. While dictators like Putin and Xi Jinping steal the headlines, activists around the globe are developing networks, devising new strategies, and harnessing the power of technology to turn the tide on authoritarianism. Truth is infectious, and as we learn more about the destructive power of corruption, the totalitarian nature of mass surveillance, and the complicity of celebrity power in authoritarianism, we draw more people to the cause of democracy. The new year brings many challenges, but we do not face these challenges alone; we stand in solidarity in our mission to promote and protect human rights globally.

Read the complete “Truth Ignited: 2021 in Review” blogs series below: