The Long Arm of Authoritarianism

How Dictators Reach Across Borders to Shut Down Dissent

Last year was a particularly dangerous time to be a Belarusian political dissident—not just in Belarus, but anywhere in the world. In 2021, after months of violently cracking down on peaceful opposition protests at home, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko began exporting his repressive tactics abroad. His targets ranged widely, from longtime dissidents to novice critics. Although many of his efforts flew under the international radar, others attracted major public attention. In May 2021, for instance, Lukashenko’s regime concocted a false bomb threat to force a passenger airliner traveling between Greece and Lithuania to land in Minsk so that Roman Pratasevich, a young journalist and political activist on board, could be arrested on the tarmac. Later, during the Tokyo Olympics, Belarusian authorities tried to forcibly repatriate Krystsina Tsimanouskaya, a track and field athlete, after she criticized the national team’s coaching staff—and were only prevented from doing so by the Japanese police.

Both incidents are cases of what is known as transnational repression, or the efforts of governments to reach across borders to silence their critics. In a new report from Freedom House, a nonpartisan democracy advocacy organization, we find that safe spaces for dissent are rapidly shrinking around the world. Based on a data set of 735 documented incidents of explicit transnational repression that occurred between 2014 and 2021, we show that authoritarian governments are increasingly working together to help locate, threaten, detain, and expel their critics. Moreover, thanks to the restrictive asylum policies of many democracies that could otherwise serve as havens for dissidents, there are fewer safe places available for those seeking shelter from persecution. If democracies want to shore up liberal values and human rights worldwide, they could start by welcoming those who are risking their lives to stand up to authoritarian regimes.

NOWHERE TO TURN

Worryingly, fellow autocrats are increasingly helping each other chase dissidents across borders. In 2021, the vast majority of incidents of transnational repression—74 percent—were committed by authoritarian governments on the territory of other authoritarian states. This is 16 percentage points higher than the average between 2014 and 2020, when 58 percent of cases recorded by Freedom House were perpetrated by and took place in authoritarian countries. Incidents of transnational repression that occur in countries with little regard for civil and political rights and with weak traditions of rule of law, such as Tajikistan and Thailand, are particularly insidious because they tend to attract less media, civil society, and government attention. Although Pratasevich’s arrest and Tsimanouskaya’s ordeal garnered significant international coverage and even led to the imposition of multilateral sanctions, the bulk of Belarus’s campaign of transnational repression in 2021 largely went unnoticed. This is because it mostly took place inside a neighboring authoritarian country:

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime has been a willing partner in Lukashenko’s persecution of dissidents and opponents. Russian courts, long indifferent to the rights of homegrown political activists, repeatedly approved extradition requests for Belarusians in Russia who had been active in antigovernment protests in Belarus. In one notable case, Russia deported a mixed martial arts fighter who, according to Radio Free Europe, had already been beaten and shot with rubber bullets while in police custody in Belarus, even after the European Court of Human Rights issued an opinion prohibiting his repatriation because of concerns about torture. His was only one of 22 incidents last year in which Belarusians in Russia were detained, extradited, or threatened with extradition.

In some cases, the Russian state has played a more active role in spiriting people wanted by Lukashenko’s regime out of Russia without any semblance of a legal process. In April 2021, Russian authorities apparently kidnapped two Belarusian men—one with U.S. citizenship—from a hotel in Moscow and handed them over to Belarusian security services, who then drove them over 400 miles across the border to Minsk. Both men had longstanding ties to the Belarusian opposition and now face charges of planning a coup against the government in Belarus.

Russian authorities have helped other autocrats repress dissidents as well. Take, for instance, the case of Izzat Amon, a human rights activist originally from Tajikistan who had Russian citizenship and had been living in Russia for decades. Amon ran a nonprofit organization in Moscow that helped migrants from Central Asia find employment and get legal immigration status in Russia. Amon was deported from Russia in March 2021; upon his return to Tajikistan, he was sentenced to nine years in prison on dubious charges of fraud. When another activist from Turkmenistan, who had been living in Russia for six years, disappeared in October 2021, Russian authorities claimed that he had left the country voluntarily. But information obtained by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International suggests that he was in fact arrested by the Russian police and forcibly returned to Turkmenistan, where he is now being held incommunicado by security services.

Other countries share Russia’s willingness to come to the aid of fellow autocracies. In November 2021, authorities in Thailand unlawfully repatriated opposition activists to Cambodia, where they faced politically motivated charges and threats to their safety. In May, the government of the United Arab Emirates detained for weeks a teenage Chinese activist who was transiting through the Dubai airport and allowed Chinese consular officials to try to coerce him into returning to China. The Turkish government, which is itself a major perpetrator of transnational repression, has acted on behalf of other authoritarian governments to bully foreign activists living inside its borders. These developments portend a troubling future for civil society groups, political dissidents, and pro-democracy advocates, all of whom now face the prospect that persecution will follow them no matter where they go.

AIDING AND ABETTING

As autocrats increasingly collaborate to crush dissent, traditional sanctuaries for critics and activists are becoming less welcoming. For instance, Turkey was a longtime safe haven for Uyghurs, but it has recently become a dangerous place for the Uyghur diaspora. In 2021, Turkish authorities harassed groups of Uyghur activists by arresting them and threatening them with deportation to China. That same year, Beijing ratified an extradition treaty signed by Ankara in 2017, fueling fears that Uyghurs living in Turkey could be arrested on trumped-up charges and extradited back to China. This mounting repression of Uyghurs in Turkey has taken place against the backdrop of tightening economic and political relations between Ankara and Beijing, driven by Turkey’s growing need for investment and trade with the Asian superpower.

Turkish authorities also cracked down on the small Turkmen diaspora in the country, arresting activists opposed to the strongman regime in Ashgabat and working to prevent protests in front of Turkmenistan’s embassy. This comes as the Turkish government is seeking closer ties with the Central Asian country: the crackdown coincided with the November 2021 summit meeting of the Cooperation Council of Turkic Speaking States, a regional bloc that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan hopes to lead and where Turkmenistan has observer status.

Autocrats are increasingly working together to help locate, detain, and expel their critics. 

Erdogan has likewise sought to salvage relations with Saudi Arabia after years of tensions by abandoning efforts to ensure accountability for one of the most heinous acts of transnational repression committed on Turkish soil. In April 2021, a Turkish court agreed to transfer the trial being held in connection with the 2018 murder of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian dissident and journalist, to the same Saudi authorities who had been implicated in his killing.

Nondemocratic governments cooperate in the exercise of transnational repression because it is politically convenient and because they share a set of illiberal values that reject the fundamental right to criticize those who wield political power. Authoritarian practices and values are currently on the rise: a Freedom House report released earlier this year found that democracy has declined globally for 16 consecutive years, and political rights and civil liberties are under attack even in established democracies such as India and the United States. These parallel trends converge to form an ominous forecast: autocrats will have more and more opportunities to cooperate moving forward.

LOCKING THE GATES

Global declines in civil liberties and political rights—and the erosion of checks on human rights violations and abuses of power—deepen transnational repression because people who flee the persecution of one authoritarian government are likely to find themselves under the thumb of another. Geographical proximity, permissive visa regimes, and the strict asylum policies of democratic governments often funnel dissidents fleeing an authoritarian regime into places controlled by other nondemocratic governments. Citizens of Belarus and Central Asia go to Russia, where they do not need a visa to enter. People escaping Cambodia, Laos, or Vietnam often cross the border into neighboring Thailand. Uyghurs leave China by escaping to Egypt or Turkey. These places are attractive because they are accessible—but although they may provide short-term refuge, they do not offer long-term protection.

Living in a robust democracy, with strong legal systems and high levels of security, is by far the best protection against transnational repression. It is, however, no guarantee of safety. Authoritarian governments struggle to target dissidents in Europe and the United States, but they have still found some limited success. Last year, for instance, the U.S. Department of Justice revealed that agents of the Iranian regime hired a private investigator to collect information on Masih Alinejad, a prominent Iranian-American journalist and women’s rights activist, as part of a plan to kidnap her from her home in Brooklyn and return her to Iran. Also last year, a court in Sweden convicted a man and a woman for the assault and attempted murder of Tumso Abdurakhmanov, a Chechen asylum seeker and a long-time critic of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, as part of a plot hatched by Chechen officials.

To meet the challenge of global authoritarianism, democracies must change their approach to asylum. 

This problem is compounded by the rising barriers to admission that increasingly fence off democracies from asylum seekers, refugees, and other immigrants. Democratic countries—already geographically distant from many repressive regimes—have invested resources in building physical and legal walls against immigrants. In 2016, the EU signed an agreement with Turkey aimed at preventing asylum seekers from reaching Europe via Greece. The policy effectively corralled millions of people inside Turkey, a country that already targets its own opponents abroad and increasingly harasses foreign activists at home.

Another striking example of an asylum policy that may well facilitate transnational repression is the United Kingdom’s plan, announced this April, to send asylum seekers arriving in the country by irregular means to Rwanda for processing and resettlement. Rwanda is controlled by an authoritarian regime and is itself an active perpetrator of transnational repression. The British authorities are perfectly aware of Rwanda’s track record. In 2019, the Rwandan government targeted Faustin Rukundo, a UK resident and outspoken critic of Rwandan President Paul Kagame, with surveillance spyware. As reported by the BBC, the Rwandan High Commission in London has pressured Rwandan residents of the United Kingdom to take a loyalty oath to the regime as recently as 2020. In light of this recent history, the United Kingdom should be fully aware that its decision to offshore its responsibility for the asylum process to Rwanda will only help authoritarian governments seeking to target dissidents by consigning political refugees to the care of an authoritarian state.

IT STARTS AT HOME

Democracies can and should hold perpetrators of transnational repression accountable, as part of the work of safeguarding democracy and human rights at home as well as abroad. They can do so by applying targeted sanctions, withholding security assistance, and prosecuting those responsible for domestic acts of transnational repression. Democratic countries should also work together to stem the abuse of tools meant to facilitate international cooperation on security issues. These tools, such as the Red Notices issued by the International Criminal Police Organization, which inform member countries about internationally wanted fugitives, are increasingly being used by authoritarian governments to legally detain and extradite dissidents. But to meet the bigger challenge of rising global authoritarianism, especially as nondemocratic governments increasingly cooperate to stifle dissent, democracies must first and foremost change their approach to asylum.

Democracies should stop offshoring their immigration and asylum systems and allow people the opportunity to apply for asylum inside their territories, where they are offered better protections against persecution, repression, and violence on the part of authoritarian states. Governments should also provide permanent protections for those who qualify for asylum and reduce the reliance on temporary refugee status that leaves individuals and their families exposed to harassment by their countries of origin. As long as democratic governments enact ever more restrictive policies on asylum, they will continue to trap vulnerable people in parts of the world where autocrats make the rules.

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