Regimes are becoming bolder in targeting dissidents abroad. Here are some of the worst cases from 2022
By Frankie Vetch
December 27, 2022
In 2022, more governments unleashed harassment and violence on dissidents who had found refuge — and presumably safety — in other countries. This phenomenon is known under the umbrella term “transnational repression,” with regimes deploying just about any asset at their disposal to silence critics and curtail information sources from abroad. This year marked an escalation — many countries, big and small, are copying the transnational repression tactics honed by the most brutal, unconstrained regimes. Here are some of the worst transnational repression pioneers of 2022.
China continued to be the most dangerous cross-border offender. As part of its highly sophisticated transnational repression campaign, the regime issued hundreds of lnterpol red notices — requests to police around the world to detain and send suspects back to China. In April, the Chinese government tried to force back four members of the Uyghur minority, who have been targeted heavily within and outside China, from Saudi Arabia. Among the four was a 13-year-old girl who, along with her mother, risks being sent to a detention center. Following an outcry from human rights groups, the deportation has been delayed.
Under the banner of an anti-corruption program called Sky Net, the Chinese state has also ramped up efforts to repatriate Chinese nationals it accuses of corruption. The program has seen thousands targeted in the last few years, including the Chinese businessman Ma Chao, a member of the persecuted Falun Gong movement currently living in Cyprus. At the start of the year, members of his family in China were arrested to increase pressure on him to return. Just one month later, an Interpol notice was issued against his wife.
Even within the U.S., traditionally seen as the ultimate safe haven for those escaping persecution abroad, China has ramped up its efforts to target dissidents. In October, the FBI charged seven individuals with conducting a campaign to surveil and coerce U.S. residents to return to China. In response to this concerning trend, a group of Democratic congressmen have introduced a bill that seeks to codify transnational repression as a crime under U.S. law.
Turkey is one of the biggest transnational repression actors. High-profile attempts to return Kurds back to Turkey were a regular occurrence in 2022. Turkey has been able to leverage Russia’s war in Ukraine, demanding that Finland and Sweden commit to more proactively returning dissident Kurds to Turkey in exchange for Turkey’s support for their NATO membership bids. Turkey’s government has provided a list of dozens of people it wants repatriated. It continued to tap informal networks to attack and threaten journalists living abroad. Those targeted in Sweden include the Turkish-Kurdish journalist Ahmet Donmez, who, in March of this year, was attacked outside his home.
Over the years, the Iranian regime has used tactics such as assassinations, renditions and digital intimidation to target Iranian citizens in countries in Europe, the Middle East and North America, according to Freedom House. During the past three months of cascading protests across Iran, there has been renewed global interest in the dangers facing Iranian activists living at home and abroad.
In October, masked men attacked anti-government protestors outside the Iranian embassy in Berlin, leaving several injured. The British police recently warned two British-Iranian journalists and their families that they faced an increased “credible” threat from Iranian state security forces. The head of the U.K.’s domestic spy network, MI5, used his annual threat update to warn of Iran’s ambitions to “kidnap or even kill British or U.K.-based individuals perceived as enemies of the regime.” He said that there had been at least 10 such potential threats since January 2022.
Since U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered in 2018 inside the Saudi embassy in Turkey, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has been under a measure of diplomatic pressure. That has not stopped him from expanding the Saudi government’s transnational repression efforts. In August, the same month that President Biden met with the prince, three people were sentenced in Saudi Arabia after being surveilled while abroad. One was a 34-year-old mother who had tweeted about the Kingdom while in the U.K.
It was also in August that a former employee of Twitter was convicted in the U.S. for using his access to Twitter’s data to spy for the Saudi regime. Last week, a U.S. judge dismissed a lawsuit against bin Salman that sought to hold him accountable for Khashoggi’s murder. The judge said that, while he felt uneasy about it, his hands were tied because the Biden administration had made a recommendation to give the Saudi leader political immunity. Having cemented its position as one of the worst transnational aggressors of 2022, the Biden administration’s policy is likely to provide wiggle room for the Saudi regime in 2023.