Foreign governments attack dissidents on US soil
In a new report released Thursday, pro-democracy think tank and watchdog Freedom House said it had recorded 85 new incidents of “public, direct, physical incidents of transnational repression” in 2021, up from the total number of cases from early 2014 increased to 735 last year by the end of 2014.
Even those living within the world’s pre-eminent superpower are not being spared. Iran, China, Egypt, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and others have targeted those in the United States, Freedom House noted, and are “increasingly and aggressively disobeying U.S. laws to physically threaten, harass, to monitor, track and even plan to harm people across the country.”
The act of transnational repression dates back at least decades: During the Cold War, the Soviet Union frequently crossed borders to assassinate so-called “enemies of the state”. But the way some governments are now acting has become “outrageous, even outlandish,” Freedom House’s Yana Gorokhovskaia told me in a phone call.
Autocratic governments worked together to promote the alarming idea, Gorokhovskaia said, that “people don’t have the right to criticize those in power no matter where they are in the world — not just at home, but also when they leave home.” .”
Transnational repression came to Brooklyn last summer. Masih Alinejad, an Iranian-American journalist and activist, was the apparent target of a conspiracy in which she may have been kidnapped from a waterfront neighborhood in New York City and possibly taken out of the country on a speedboat to an uncertain fate.
“This is not a far-fetched film plot. We accuse an Iranian government-backed group of conspiring to kidnap a US-based journalist here on our soil and forcibly return her to Iran,” FBI Deputy Director William F. Sweeney Jr. said in a statement Statement announcing the conspiracy last July.
Much of the harassment aimed at dissidents on US soil is less dramatic, but no less severe. Gorokhovskaia noted that incidents were counted for the report Not included this year were the more subtle forms of pressure, from online abuse and hacking claims to blackmail through threats against relatives and friends still living in their home country.
In 2020, a New York City police officer originally from Tibet was charged with acting as an illegal agent of the Chinese government and using his position to gather information about the Tibetan diaspora. Officer Baimadajie Angwang was granted asylum in the United States at the age of 17 after he claimed he would be tortured if he returned to China.
Freedom House interviewed a dozen people from other locations now living in the United States about how the threat of transnational repression had affected them. “If you don’t feel safe in your home in the US, it’s a disaster,” Sardar Pashaei, a former wrestler and activist from Iran, told the report’s authors. “That’s a shame. … Where else on this planet should we go to feel safe?”
Gorokhovskaia said: “When you talk about authoritarianism, I think that a lot of times we tend to talk about it as a problem over there. This is a problem right here, and it’s happening to people living in this country, many of whom are citizens or permanent residents. It really limits their exercise of rights that I think most of us consider normal and fundamental.”
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The US government has taken some steps to address the problem. The Justice Department has begun charging individuals in connection with cross-border repression, while the FBI has been tracking the crimes and has released a website offering advice and raising awareness to victims.
But there is more that could be done. Freedom House highlights the difficult path to legal immigrant status that exists for many immigrant communities, even for those with legitimate asylum claims. The United States is also a diplomatic ally to some of the countries that target dissidents abroad, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Riyadh’s attacks on foreign critics came to international attention with the 2018 murder in Istanbul of Jamal Khashoggi, a Washington Post contributor and US permanent resident. But the United States has tried to restore ties with Saudi Arabia in the years since; it was never about personally sanctioning Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
For Saudi dissidents in the United States, this pragmatism sent a message. “MBS was not awarded, but he was not sanctioned. He was not admitted,” an unnamed Saudi in the United States told Freedom House. “Things changed quickly for us after that. … There seemed to be a reaction from the Saudi government that there are no consequences. We can do what we want.”
By its very nature, transnational repression is difficult for a single country to resolve. International organizations like Interpol are part of the problem, with countries like Turkey, Russia and China using the crime agency to issue Red Notices against dissidents and exiles, Freedom House writes, allowing them to reach people abroad.
There has been some progress. Congress passed the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act in late 2021, urging the United States to use its leverage as Interpol’s largest donor to better influence the body. In March, the governments of Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States asked Interpol to suspend Russian authorities’ access to systems following the invasion of Ukraine.
Freedom House is calling for more to be done, with like-minded governments working together to achieve an international standard on transnational repression, and working with tech companies and bodies like the United Nations to limit their impact.
It won’t be easy, but the problem probably won’t go away any time soon. As Freedom House and other organizations have noted, in recent years authoritarianism has spread and democracy has declined. But the downside of growing transnational repression is that social media and online communication pose new threats to autocratic governments.
“There have always been people in exile and people who have stayed in exile in politics in their home country. But it is undeniable that people’s voices are amplified by being online, through social media platforms,” Gorokhovskaia said. “There’s this feedback loop. They can stay in touch with what is happening at home and they can speak up on behalf of causes and movements at home from abroad.”