A shining symbol of their impunity: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, considered by Washington to be the sponsor of the October 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul, sealed his reconciliation with Turkey during a visit in June.
And US President Joe Biden, after devoting Saudi Arabia to “pariah” status, is to meet the Crown Prince there at the end of the week.
While the phenomenon known as “transnational repression” has existed for a long time, it has exploded in recent years due to migratory movements and the development of digital technologies that allow activists in exile to be heard in their country of origin.
These changes “have of course increased the perception of the threat by repressive regimes”, explains Marcus Michaelsen, specialist in activism and online repression, researcher at the Flemish University of Brussels (VUB).
In a new report in June, after a first global study on the subject last year, the American organization for the promotion of democracy Freedom House counts 735 direct physical acts between 2014 and 2021 committed by 36 countries, in particular China, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Rwanda.
Four countries swelled the list in 2021, including Belarus, which even hijacked a plane to arrest an opponent.
But such spectacular actions, such as the poisoning of ex-Russian agent Sergei Skripal in 2018 in England or the 2019 assassination in Berlin of a Georgian Chechen activist, ordered by Moscow according to German justice, represent only the demonstrations visible from a much more pernicious policy.
“The range of tactics goes from harassment to assassination, it can be both harassment, threats, pressure…”, lists Katia Roux of Amnesty International France, up to “enforced disappearances , kidnappings or assassinations”.
Exiled in Germany, from where he runs a website and a radio station for Turkey and the diaspora, the Turkish journalist Can Dündar is in the crosshairs of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“The first year we discovered a Turkish TV crew filming our office showing all the details including the address, our daily schedule, schedules etc. and describing it as the headquarters of traitors”, he remembers for AFP.
“Even in the diaspora, people are afraid”, he underlines, recalling the attack in July 2021 of a Turkish journalist in his building in Berlin by three men who summoned him to “stop writing. on sensitive issues.
Besides the Turkish intelligence services “very active especially in Germany and France”, according to Can Dündar, “there are many supporters of Erdogan here and he can easily mobilize them”.
Refugee in France following a kidnapping attempt in 2018 which he attributes to members of the Pakistani security services, journalist Taha Siddiqui confides “to feel safer there” than in Pakistan, but certainly not sheltered.
In 2020, during a visit by the Pakistani intelligence services to his parents to incite him to silence, one of the officers cowardly told them: “If Taha thinks he is safe in Paris, he is wrong”, recounts- he.
Coinciding the same year with the disturbing deaths of a Pakistani journalist in Sweden and then of a Pakistani human rights activist in Canada, the warning awakens the trauma of his abduction. And in March, a British court sentenced a man to life for the 2021 attempted murder for pay of a Pakistani blogger exiled in the Netherlands.
“I fell back into paranoia,” sighs Taha Siddiqui, who has opened a bar in Paris, “The Dissident Club”, hosting meetings, exhibitions and screenings. “Every time I tweet, I have to ask myself if it’s worth getting into this battle. So they managed to make me paranoid, suspicious and fearful, even in exile”.
– Surveillance invisible –
If physical transnational repression “does not have a very high political cost, it nevertheless arouses attention, even diplomatic risks”, notes Marcus Michaelsen, “but in the digital domain the consequences are almost nil”.
Authoritarian regimes “now benefit from a commercial market for surveillance technologies”, which bring them a “very good cost/effectiveness ratio”, specifies the expert, such as the Israeli software Pegasus, used to spy on the phones of hundreds of personalities.
Among them, the Egyptian opponent Ayman Nour, friend of Jamal Khashoggi and exiled in Turkey.
The specialized group from the University of Toronto (Canada) Citizen Lab detected on its device two spyware, Pegasus and Predator, installed on behalf of two different states, a world first.
“Spying on opponents and violating their privacy is a form of organized crime that dictatorial regimes engage in with the help of the digital beasts that thrive on this illicit trade,” says Ayman Nour.
However, he claims to have “changed nothing” in his behavior: “I have always considered my phone as a radio, which everyone could listen to”.
“Any government can acquire this technology to monitor any person in a completely invisible and untraceable way”, nevertheless worries Katia Roux. Amnesty has identified eleven Pegasus client states.
Moreover, “when a country physically attacks its opponents abroad, it is always preceded by some form of digital threat, the two always go hand in hand”, warns Marcus Michaelsen, citing the example of the reprisals on the families in China of activists from the Uyghur minority.
To counter this type of pressure, Meiirbek Sailanbek, from the Kazakh community, another Muslim minority in China, erased from his phone the Chinese applications and numbers of his brother and sister who remained in Xinjiang (north-west).
The life of this engineer in the oil industry, based in neighboring Kazakhstan, where he acquired nationality, changed when information on the repression of the Uyghurs in 2018 began to filter, and the internment of his colleagues, comrades of school and teachers, he says.
After the arrest in 2019 by the authorities of Kazakhstan of the head of the NGO Atajurt, to which he belongs, while publishing on social networks under a pseudonym, he manages to take refuge in Paris.
About two months after his departure, his identity discovered by the authorities of Kazakhstan, the Chinese government threatens his brother and his sister to send them to a camp or to prison if he continues to write, he continues.
A message relayed by his mother, who lives in Kazakhstan with his father: “Meiirbek, your sister and your brother are in danger, we must stop”.
Since then, his world has shrunk sharply: he can no longer return to China or Kazakhstan and prefers to avoid Turkey, Pakistan, Arab countries or Russia, considered too sensitive to pressure from Beijing…