Time for the west to fight for the exiled

Today’s autocrats are displaying a growing audacity in their willingness to pursuing dissenters everywhere, blatantly disregarding national boundaries in the process.

Amanda Clarkson
24 March 2017

A reading of texts by the detained journalist Deniz Yücel, held at the Festsaal Kreuzberg in Berlin, Germany, 15 March 2017. Gregor Fischer/Press Association. All rights reserved.For dissidents and rights defenders around the world, the ability to seek refuge abroad has always been a crucial lifeline. Autocratic and authoritarian regimes in particular give rise to expat communities abroad, as those willing to speak out at home are often forced into exile.

Increasingly, though, persecution has not stopped at the border: today’s autocrats are displaying a growing audacity in their willingness to pursuing dissenters everywhere, using varied methods, and blatantly disregarding national boundaries in the process. As the tentacles of oppression slither deeper into what should be safe havens, it’s high time the West recognizes its moral obligation to fight back.

China takes a particularly aggressive approach, reaching far beyond its own borders to pursue activists the government sees as threats. Beijing follows a tried and tested playbook to go after its critics abroad: deploy Chinese citizens as well as Chinese-born foreign citizens to infiltrate dissident expat communities, with the aim of forcing dissidents to return to China. Examples of this modus operandi can be found in places as far apart as Sweden and Canada. In the latter case, Chinese agents have doubled their efforts to force expats to return after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau displayed his unwillingness to heed Beijing’s demands and conclude a repatriation treaty. These tactics offer the added benefit of avoiding lengthy legal battles involving dissidents’ host countries on whether or not to deport those who have sought refuge.

While such cloak-and-dagger antics have come to be synonymous with the regime in Beijing, other countries now duplicate China’s approach in suppressing dissidents and activists abroad. Following the attempted Turkish coup in July 2016, a purge targeting more than 50,000 public servants, military personnel, and journalists has been under way. Most are suspected of having connections to Fetullah Gulen, an exiled cleric living in Pennsylvania who Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan blames for the failed attempt.

Tensions between Berlin and Ankara have been mounting since the troubling arrest of journalist Deniz Yücel. A correspondent for German daily Die Welt, who has dual Turkish and German citizenship, Yücel is the first German journalist to be arrested in the context of the purge, proving that holding a foreign passport doesn’t help protect those who criticize autocratic regimes. Yücel came under fire from the Turkish government after coverage of the rebel Kurdistan Worker’s Party, as well as reporting on hacking attempts carried out against Erdogan’s son-in-law Berat Albayrak, Turkey’s energy minister. Yücel was initially accused of having ties to hackers involved in releasing files stolen from Albayrak to Wikileaks.

The affair didn’t end there. German authorities recently raided the homes of Turkish-trained imams suspected of spying on critics of Erdogan’s increasingly illiberal regime and constitutional reform plans, uncovering a vast network of clerical spies in the process. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Much like the former East German Stasi, Turkey’s National Intelligence Agency (MIT) is known to be conducting “enormous” undercover operations across the Federal Republic in an attempt to put pressure on German Turks, using 800 officers and a staggering 6000 informants – one informant for every 500 citizens of Turkish origin.

Infiltrating foreign communities thus presents western states with a palpable threat, not least because this extra-legal approach undermines the sovereignty of the host state. Thus far, though, a concerted pushback against this subversion has been lacking. Following several high-profile extraditions of Chinese dissidents living in Thailand, western governments simply wagged their finger at China’s cross-border activities. In turn, Beijing has come to interpret the west’s apathy as an indication that the cross-border pursuit of Chinese-born dissidents is tacitly accepted and consequently justified.

While China and Turkey do their best circumvent democratic judicial systems, others actively engage the courts of the western countries to which dissidents have fled in order to lock them into protracted legal battles and pervert the legal institutions meant to protect them. Just look no further than Djibouti’s authoritarian leader Ismail Omar Guelleh, for example, who used the British courts to attack Abdourahman Boreh, a political opponent, by accusing him of supporting terrorism and accepting bribes for the construction of a port. Fearing Boreh could turn into a leader of the exiled opposition, Guelleh initiated court procedures on “capricious” charges finally thrown out once judges were able to get to the heart of the matter. Despite Guelleh’s attempt to sabotage the system with its own weapons, the final ruling cleared Boreh of all charges—three years and millions of pounds later. Guelleh suffered yet another legal setback in London last month: after alleging Dubai’s DP World bribed Boreh to win a concession in Djibouti, his government lost an arbitration case.

Sadly, successes like this may become less likely as a result of changing political tides. Donald Trump, despite being the “leader of the free world,” has demonstrated an unabashed admiration for strongmen like Vladimir Putin and a tendency to resort to autocratic methods himself. His response to criticism against his administration, for example, has been to engage in a media crackdown that would not be out of place in China or in Erdogan’s Turkey. Though the administration’s stance toward Beijing has been tough, Trump‘s criticism of China centres on trade and economic issues and has very little to do with human rights.

If the actions of Trump’s White House associates are anything to go by, the new president won’t prioritize protecting dissidents in the United States: his former National Security Advisor, Michael Flynn, took money to lobby for Gulen’s extradition while working for Trump’s campaign. Beyond Washington, the international legal foundations of justice seem to be crumbling; especially in Africa, multiple states have announced their intention to quit the International Criminal Court.

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