Report

Autocrats Increasingly Quashing Dissent Beyond Their Own Borders

Freedom House says transnational repression is on the rise—led by China, Saudi Arabia, and Russia.

A demonstrator dressed as Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with blood on his hands
A demonstrator dressed as Saudi Arabian Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman with blood on his hands protests for justice for missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington on Oct. 8, 2018. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Dissidents and human-rights activists are increasingly facing a cross-border gauntlet of threats and violence from the very authoritarian regimes they are trying to escape, according to a new report by Freedom House detailing the “immense scope” and normalization of transnational repression.

The report found that 31 countries—such as China, Saudia Arabia, and Russia—carried out attacks against victims in 79 host countries, making for a total six years of more than 600 cases of transnational repression: when governments reach beyond their borders to stifle dissent. More than two dozen were assassinations or assassination attempts since 2016. In all, about 3.5 million people globally have ultimately been impacted by these acts of coercion and intimidation. 

The biggest culprits? China, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia, and Turkey.

Although countries employ different methods, the four categories of transnational repression Freedom House studied were direct attacks, co-opting other countries, using mobility controls to restrict travel, and making threats from a distance. With the development of digital technologies like social media and spyware, the capacity for repression reaching across national borders has strengthened over time. 

Usually, the report found, countries invoke terrorism as a justification for engaging in transnational repression. According to the report, in 58 percent of documented cases the targeted individual was accused of terrorism. This high percentage “really speaks to the way in which terrorism accusations are like the trump card,” said Nate Schenkkan, Director of Research Strategy at Freedom House. “If you really want to tell other states to back off, terrorism is your number one play.”

Here are some of the worst offenders, according to Freedom House.


China 

According to the report, China’s campaign of transnational repression is one of the world’s most sophisticated. Through cyberattacks, espionage, and other threats, Beijing has launched an expansive campaign that targets ethnic minorities and dissidents, especially in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. Notably, in 2015 the Chinese Communist Party kidnapped Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong bookseller, while he was on holiday in Thailand. Gui, a Swedish citizen, confessed to an alleged drunk-driving accident and renounced his Swedish citizenship while in custody—declarations that his supporters maintain were forced

China’s transnational repression has also reached the United States. In Oct. 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice charged eight individuals with conspiring to act as China’s illegal agents, coercing U.S. residents to return to China. “The Chinese government’s brazen attempts to surveil, threaten, and harass our own citizens and lawful permanent residents, while on American soil, are part of China’s diverse campaign of theft and malign influence in our country and around the world,” said Christopher Wray, director of the FBI. 


Rwanda 

In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame has sought to silence dissidents abroad since taking power in the 1990s. Perhaps most jarringly, in Sept. 2020 Rwandan officials kidnapped Paul Rusesabagina, politician and hero of the film Hotel Rwanda who has since been a vocal critic of Kagame’s regime, from the United Arab Emirates. 

Kagame has denied accusations of kidnapping, but has failed to provide a coherent narrative of how Rusesabagina returned to Rwanda, and he has reportedly been denied access to his family’s lawyer. In January, Rusesabagina told Foreign Policy that his movements were closely monitored, and that he received physical threats from government officials after denouncing Kagame’s policies. 


Saudi Arabia 

Saudi Arabia made headlines when it allegedly murdered prominent journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. But according to the Freedom House report, Khashoggi was not the kingdom’s only alleged target. In order to silence dissidents in the Middle East, Europe, North America, and Asia, the Saudi government has employed a system of spyware, detentions, intimidation,and other related assaults. In 2018, the Saudi government arrested and detained Loujain al-Hathloul, a well-known women’s rights activist and human-rights defender, for 70 days in the United Arab Emirates, where she was studying. 


Iran 

According to Freedom House, transnational repression in Iran is directed at whoever they consider “a threat to the Islamic Republic.” The regime not only considers dissidents to be terrorists, but also journalists. “In January 2020, Reporters without Borders (RSF) counted 200 Iranian journalists living overseas who had been threatened, including 50 who had received death threats.”


Russia

Russia seeks to ensure that exiled activists’ information will “not reach domestic audiences,” the report found. And—despite direct attacks on dissidents like opposition leader Alexei Navalny—Moscow uses middlemen. The head of the Chechen Republic, Ramzan Kadyrov, has helped advance a “campaign to control the Chechen diaspora,” according to the report.

Freedom House describes Kadyrov’s campaign as an example of “a subnational regime operating its own transnational repression campaign.” Freedom House’s international survey found that since 2014, “The Russian campaign accounts for 7 of 26 assassinations or assassination attempts,” and 20 of the 32 “documented physical cases of Russian transnational repression” have a Chechen nexus.


Turkey

Since the July 2016 coup attempt, “the regime has pursued its perceived enemies in at least 31 different host countries spread across the Americas, Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia,” the report found. Before 2016, Turkey “did not engage in extensive transnational repression activities,” the report noted.

In Turkey’s transnational repression campaign there’s a big “reliance on renditions,” the report found. Freedom House found 58 renditions in Turkey since 2014: “No other perpetrator state was found to have conducted such a large number of renditions, from so many host countries, during the coverage period—and the documented total is almost certainly an undercount.”

Christina Lu is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @christinafei

Cailey Griffin is an intern at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @keenstoryteller

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