Russian President Vladimir Putin and Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko pose during a boat trip on the Black Sea on May 29, 2021, as the close allies met for informal talks amid the outcry after Minsk diverted a European plane. Photo: AFP / Sergei Ilyin / Sputnik

Vitaly Shishov was a pro-democracy activist from Belarus who helped co-nationals escape from political repression in their home country. He found a safe haven for himself in Ukraine, where he labored freely.

It was not so safe, it turned out: Shishov was found dead hanging from a tree in a Kiev park last week. Police quickly opened a homicide investigation. No surprise there. It is a growing practice of authoritarian governments and their agents to seek out political enemies wherever they may be to spy on them, possibly bundle them back home or kill them in place.

Confident that domestic anti-government activists can be subdued, they spread a web of fear among migrants worldwide. Political scholars call this activity “transnational repression.” It is systematic and well-planned policy.

“What appear to be isolated incidents when viewed separately – an assassination here, a kidnapping there – in fact form a constant threat across the world,” said Freedom House, human-rights monitoring group, in a February report. “Transnational repression is no longer an exceptional tool, but a normal and institutionalized practice for dozens of countries that seek to control their citizens abroad.”

Belarus is far from the only master of extraterritorial menace. Russia, China and Iran have all become accomplished hunter-gatherers of dissidents outside their borders. 

Ruled by its lifetime President Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus has made such pursuits into a brazen specialty. Belarusian Olympic officials tried to force sprinter Krystina Tsikhanouskaya to fly to Belarus from Tokyo after she complained about treatment by her coaches. Japanese police intervened at a Tokyo airport, the Polish government granted her an emergency visa, and she flew to Warsaw.

In May, Lukashenko ordered a passenger plane that was flying over Belarus to land in Minsk. He sent up fighter jets to make sure the pilot followed his command – all to get his hands on a dissident blogger and his girlfriend on board. Both had been exiled in Lithuania. Both remain in custody in Minsk.

As far back as 2012, European investigators released recordings of Lukashenko threatening the life of a journalist named Pavel Sheremet. In 2016, he was victim of a fatal car bombing in Kiev.

Repression goes high tech

Though attacks on political rivals abroad are not new, several factors have nurtured recent growth of transnational repression. Exiled dissidents are embedded among hundreds of thousands of people across the globe who have fled authoritarianism and use the Internet to amplify their voices. Repressive governments counterattack using new high-tech information-gathering tools to target perceived enemies.

A spyware product known as Pegasus can infiltrate mobile phones and gather all information on it. It was originally marketed by its Israeli inventors as a tool to fight crime and terrorism. Governments find it useful to surveil human-rights activists, lawyers, journalists and a host of other bothersome political adversaries. 

During the 20th century, repressive regimes generally put up walls to keep outsiders, and their ideas, out. In the globalized system of this millennium, they engage with international organizations and trade at will outside their borders – where their agents move and communicate freely.

In the wake of the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, on New York and Washington, the United States’ practice of “extraordinary rendition” to nab suspects in other countries was created. Washington argued that the “war on terror” created an existential threat that necessitated covert international detentions.

But there has emerged an unwelcome byproduct: Any state, and especially ones accustomed to nurturing unfettered police power, can play the game of covert harassment, kidnapping and killing abroad with impunity.

Exporting repression

Current practitioners place their operations in the appealing context of the fight against dangerous enemies. For instance, Russia and China, but not only them, label dissenters “extremists” and “terrorists” who are in the service of foreign powers.

Russia is a contemporary pioneer in extending its domestic crackdowns abroad.

In 2006, Russian agents were suspected of poisoning exiled Russian intelligence officer Alexander Litvinenko in London.

In 2018, Russian double agent Sergei Skripal who had worked for the British, along with his daughter Yulia, were found slumped on a park bench in Salisbury, southern England. They survived the contact with a Novichok nerve agent, a deadly chemical produced in Russia. Not so a British citizen in a nearby town who died after inadvertent exposure to the poison.

Since the year 2000, the Russian republic of Chechnya, whose government was set up by President Vladimir Putin after a vicious separatist war, has relentlessly carried out seek-and-kill operations for more than a decade.

In 2009, Umar Israilov, a former bodyguard of Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, was shot dead in Vienna. He had fled Chechnya and complained Kadyrov had tortured him. That same year, someone gunned down anti-government politician Sulim Yamadayev in Dubai.

In 2015, Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, an anti-Russian guerrilla commander, survived an assassination attempt by a hail of bullets in Georgia. He then fled to Ukraine and finally found refuge in Germany. Four years later in Berlin, an assassin shot him in the head while he walked to a mosque.

The suspect had traveled to Germany under a false name on a Russian state-issued passport, the investigative organization Bellingcat claimed. Putin boasted of the killing. 

Freedom House asserts that China conducts “the most sophisticated, global, and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world.”

The breadth of overseas targets is astonishingly wide: ethnic minorities, notably Uighurs and Tibetans who chafe under Chinese rule; human-rights activists, journalists and other dissenters; and allegedly corrupt former officials, many of whom were once close to the ruling class but fell out of favor.

The tactics include direct spying, surveillance on the Web, direct online warnings, intimidating personal visits, demands that the subject return to China lest they put relatives in China in danger, a practice known as coercion by proxy. Sometimes the relatives in China are forced to record hostage-like videos to send to enforce the message. 

Threats to third-party relatives in order to get confessions from adversaries, real or imagined, were a favored tactic of Josef Stalin during his Great Purge of the 1930s.

China has effectively imposed jurisdiction on its citizens abroad. Things prohibited within Chinese borders – say, criticizing President Xi Jinping – are also forbidden to Chinese outside.

In 2014, China launched a program called Fox Hunt and, a year later, Skynet. Both were aimed at ferreting out citizens abroad supposedly guilty of financial crimes. By 2018, Chinese media reported that 3,000 people had been “repatriated.” Sometimes they were sent home via extradition treaties with foreign countries, and sometimes with the use threats and pressure.

The US government says more sinister motives lie behind Fox Hunt: to politically control Chinese emigrants abroad.

“Fox Hunt is a sweeping bid by General Secretary Xi to target Chinese nationals whom he sees as threats, and who live outside China across the world. We’re talking about political rivals, dissidents, and critics seeking to expose China’s extensive human-rights violations,” Christopher Wray, director of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, said in a speech in June 2020.

China labels these allegations smears. Tracking down Chinese people abroad is necessary because they are criminal suspects – and the US and China do not have an extradition treaty, Beijing officials say.

In a lengthy July 22 report, ProPublica, an American investigative journal, detailed how a team of Chinese agents scoured the United States, from New Jersey, through Texas and to California, to identify and threaten Chinese expatriates.

In one case, having persuaded a man to return to China on a corruption charge, authorities then used him as a hostage to recruit his family members in the US to help snare expatriates.

Several Fox Hunt operatives, and a non-Chinese alleged accomplice, were eventually arrested and charged with being unregistered agents of a foreign government. 

China also tries to suppress pro-democracy activism among its tens of thousands of students who study abroad.

In a June 30 report, Human Rights Watch said Chinese classmates in Australia report other students’ activities to authorities in China. Relatives at home were threatened over the student’s activities. Scandals broke out over the unwillingness of university administrators to defend free speech, eager as they were to attract students who pay full tuition and Chinese cash for academic programs.

“It was really heartbreaking how alone these students were and how vulnerable they are so far from home and feeling this lack of protection from the university,” said Sophie McNeill, the report’s author. “Universities really fear a backlash from Beijing, so rather than discuss these issues openly, they are swept under the carpet.”

It takes little to trigger the nightmare of long-distance repression. In February, a Chinese student traveling to Europe posted a comment on the Internet questioning the official number of Chinese deaths that occurred during a firefight with Indian troops on the Chinese-Indian frontier.

The Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo reported the comments to Beijing authorities. Police in the student’s home city of Chongqing raided his parents’ home, handcuffed them, told them to tell their son to delete the post, and also confiscated an iPad, cash and computers. Police in Chongqing told The Guardian newspaper that the student “slandered and belittled the heroes” of the battle with India, and was “causing negative social impact.” 

The Middle East is another hotbed of transnational repression. For decades, Iran has engaged in plots to capture or kill political enemies. This month, the US Justice Department charged four Iranian agents operating in the US with trying to kidnap Iranian journalist and human-rights campaigner Masih Alinejad. The conspiracy was allegedly financed by an Iranian living in California.

In the US, there is a focus on the sins of the country’s current main adversaries. But friends are also involved in cross-border repression, too.

In 2018 US-friendly Saudi Arabia assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside its own consulate in Turkey. The most recent Saudi case involves Saad Aljabri, a former aide to a rival of current de facto ruler Mohammad bin Salman. Aljabri fled to Canada in 2017. The Saudis have sought to lure him back by forbidding his two adult children to leave the country. In March, the siblings disappeared in police custody.

Egypt, led by President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, officially a US “partner,” is suspected of using a similar hostage-like approach to threaten dissident expatriates. In a 2019 report, Human Rights Watch said, “Egyptian authorities have carried out arrests, house raids, interrogations, and travel bans against dozens of relatives of dissidents who live abroad.”

On the defensive

Over the past year, suggestions on how to curb transnational repressions have come out of the US Congress; less so out of European governments or the European Union.

American proposals are largely defensive. When an abuse is identified, either sanctions should be imposed on offending officials or lawsuits lodged against governments illicitly pursuing citizens abroad. Congress is proposing loosening measures to make it easier for victims to go to court. Officials are lamenting the inexperience of border agents in identifying foreign agents and suggest more training and funds.

In Europe, police are ill-equipped to handle threats against migrant communities, observers say. Muslim communities that are often suspected by European governments of extremism rarely get a hearing on complaints they are being harassed or threatened.

Moreover, governments in Europe and elsewhere tend to rubber-stamp requests made through Interpol, the international crime information sharing organization, from countries that want to detain its citizens – even if the target is simply a political activist.

In June, authorities in Morocco held Uighur online activist Yidiresi Aishan at the request of China, pending deportation. The request was filed via a so-called Interpol “red notice,” an alert that the fugitive is on a most-wanted list. 

After appeals from human-rights groups, Morocco suspended the deportation, pending review of the case.

In the contest between authoritarian determination and scattered democratic response, the dictators have the advantage: For them, control is a way to stay in power. The wider world is but another field of combat beyond the home front.

Cross-border repression, already enjoying a boom, will only grow. Exiled activists ought to be afraid. That’s one of the points of transnational repression. 

Daniel Williams

Daniel Williams is a former foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch. His book Forsaken: The Persecution of Christians in Today’s Middle East was published by O/R Books. He is currently based in Rome.