Podcast | Expert Opinions: Transnational repression
A podcast from Eurasianet’s hosts at the Harriman Institute.
In the latest episode of Expert Opinions, a podcast from the Harriman Institute at Columbia University, Masha Udensiva-Brenner interviews Freedom House researchers Nate Schenkkan and Isabel Linzer about their report on transnational repression.
Masha Udensiva-Brenner: In late May, Belarusian authorities diverted and illegally landed a Ryanair flight under the pretenses of a bomb threat while it briefly passed through Belarusian airspace. They did it because they were after a passenger on the plane: Roman Protasevic, an exiled blogger and activist who opposed the Lukashenko regime and had a huge following.
The incident was shocking to say the least, but what's important to highlight is that while it may seem isolated, it's actually part of a dangerous and increasingly pervasive global trend that affects countries and exiles all over the world.
Isabel Linzer: Governments have been targeting exiles abroad for decades. And this is a growing problem. And when it's a growing problem and nothing is done about it, we escalate to such a brazen case as this.
Udensiva-Brenner: The problem of states repressing people outside their borders is a very old one. Trotsky's assassination in Mexico City back in 1940 comes to mind, for instance. But with new technologies in a globalizing world the problem has become so common that there's a term for it now: Transnational repression.
Nate Schenkkan: Transnational repression we define as when a state tries to silence its nationals abroad.
Linzer: The strategy by which governments target people who have left the country.
Udensiva-Brenner: I’m Masha Udensiva-Brenner and you're listening to Expert Opinions, Russia Eurasia, a podcast from the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. The voices you just heard were Isabel Linzer and Nate Schenkkan – Nate is actually a Harriman Institute alum. He and Isabel work for the independent watchdog organization Freedom House. And today I'll talk to them about a report they put together on transnational repression on a global scale. It's the first report of its kind and it was released by Freedom House earlier this year. It captured just how systemic and prevalent transnational repression has become and some of the mechanics that make it possible.
So, to start, can you tell me what sorts of people are vulnerable to transnational repression? Who did these states target?
Linzer: Former insiders from the government, journalists, particular ethnic and religious minorities whom the government wants to control even now that they are outside of the country.
Udensiva-Brenner: The repression can take various forms depending on the situation. One is of a violent nature.
Schenkkan: So, assassinations, renditions assaults, co-opting other countries to imprison someone or deport them.
Udensiva-Brenner: But there are also indirect paths that governments can take to repress nationals abroad.
Schenkkan: Imprisoning their family members, or, surveilling them or sending them threats. It's really a whole spectrum of activities that are used to try to silence people who are outside the country, where they were born.
Udensiva-Brenner: The case of the Ryanair hijacking in Belarus, which occurred just a few months after the release of the report, was a particularly brazen example of violent transnational repression.
Can you in broad strokes describe what happened and talk about the case in the context of some of the trends you've wrote about in your report?
Schenkkan: So the basic facts of it are, you've got an exiled journalist/activist who was flying from Greece to Lithuania with his girlfriend. And Lithuania and Belarus are right next to each other, share a long border, and when they were over Belarus the plane was forced down by Belorussian authorities. And once it was landed Protasevich and his girlfriend Sophia Sapega were arrested and are in custody now in Belarus charged with various crimes related to their work.
Udensiva-Brenner: Quick editor’s note here, Protasevich and Sapega were moved to house arrest shortly after this interview took place.
Schenkkan: And it's a very extreme case, definitely the most prominent incident of transnational repression since the killing of Jamal Khashoggi three years ago. It's quite unusual in its own ways in that it's rare that a flight is forced down. It's also rare that states do this kind of thing by themselves. Most of the time you find a partner in the host country in the place where the person resides and you work through those partners in local institutions.
Udensiva-Brenner: Nate says that the narrative about host countries and the important roles they play in enabling transnational repression often gets lost because we only tend to hear about the most sensational cases.
It's the sending of a hit squad under a false passport to Germany or to Turkey to kill someone, or it's diverting a flight and arresting someone. And those are the things that kind of sees the headlines and most readily make is what we think about.
But, in reality, it's much more complicated than that.
Schenkkan: A lot of this, most of this, there's some kind of awareness, at least, within the host country, if not actual participation in the host country about what's happening. And that's what we really have to tackle if we want to tackle it at scale because the extreme stuff is much harder to prevent, but it's also built on this whole infrastructure of other kinds of engagements that are going on day to day.
Udensiva-Brenner: The Ryanair hijacking highlights an important vulnerability for exiles all over the world.
Linzer: It really points to the trend of transnational repression in migration and how vulnerable people are when they are in transit. We see this occurring through things like mobility controls, where people's passports are canceled or reported stolen so that they are then stuffed at the airport when they try to travel.
We see it through Interpol abuse as governments issue red notices that are also used to stop people as they're attempting to travel. So, this fits into that broader trend of preventing people from taking advantage of our more globalized internationalized space once they leave the country.
Udensiva-Brenner: And you mentioned Interpol, and that's actually something that a lot of people might not know about in terms of how easily it's abused and how easily it becomes a tool for transnational repression. Can you discuss that a bit?
Linzer: So, Interpol, I think, is often falsely understood as kind of a global police force that is catching the bad guys. And that's not really the case and that's part of how it ends up being abused.
Udensiva-Brenner: Interpol stands for international criminal police organization. So, it's no wonder people misunderstand the organization's role. But as you'll come to see, its mission is not actually to police; it's to share crime data between member states.
Schenkkan: So, it's basically just a big communication platform. That's what it's for, it's to facilitate communication between the institutions of the member states.
Udensiva-Brenner: Interpol works using a color-coded flagging system to alert member states about wanted criminals: a red notice for wanted persons, a yellow notice for missing persons, a green notice for warnings and so on. So, if a person is wanted in country X, for example, that country can submit a red notice to flag them and every Interpol member state will be alerted.
Schenkkan: And once you do that, and it goes out to all the member state institutions, you have basically a global notice for people where they might be detained. And it's very hard once that happens to get that undone. One, the effect might already happen – you might already be detained and deported before you can do anything about it. Second, it can just take a very long time to get an Interpol notice cleared once it's already in the system.
Linzer: So, what ends up happening is that even in a country like the U.S. an Interpol red notice can come through, a person can be detained at an airport or when they're in transit, but also it is sometimes treated as a warrant by law enforcement. And that's a huge problem because these red notices haven't been through the same kind of due process considerations that we would expect to see in a country that does abide by rule of law and does abide by due process.
And so that kind of allows an origin state trying to reach someone to circumvent rule of law in a country where somebody is supposed to be protected and reach them anyways.
Udensiva-Brenner: Countries all over the world have abused the Interpol system, flagging, exiled opposition figures or other enemies of the state and causing lengthy detentions in their host or transit countries, sometimes even causing deportations. The most recent Interpol scandal involves a Turkish exile.
Schenkkan: A guy named Selahaddin Gulen. He's a nephew of the cleric Fethullah Gulen who lives in the United States and is basically enemy number one for Turkey's government and this nephew was a permanent resident of the U.S. He traveled to Kenya for personal reasons. It seems in October and he was detained in Kenya, on an Interpol notice for an old criminal charge in Turkey. So something dating back like 13 years, of which he appears to have been acquitted.
So, then he's in Kenya and he's detained and he can't travel. And he's reporting to the police. And in early May, he's arrested and held. They aren't letting him move. And then a couple days after he's arrested, he disappears. His lawyer can't reach him. His family can't reach him.
Nobody knows where he is now. Turkey announces they have him in custody. It's basically he was just handed over illegally. And all of that started with a fraudulent Interpol notice. It was clearly a political persecution. His transfer to Turkey was announced by the Turkish government as part of its war on terror against the Gulen movement. And it's clear from the context that this old criminal charge was just dragged up to find a way to get it through Interpol systems.
Udensiva-Brenner: You mentioned Turkey's war on terror as a justification for Interpol abuse as a frequent excuse for transnational repression. And as you note in the report, it can be traced back to the U.S. war on terror. Can you talk about that?
Schenkkan: Sure. Yes. We definitely think that the way in which the war on terror was prosecuted, extra territorially, kind of casual disregard for international human rights norms in that crucial period, roughly 2001 to 2006, especially, helped to establish a precedent that if there are people that your state decides are terrorists and declares are terrorists, it's basically open season on them.
Linzer: These countries see that they are justified because they are tackling the problem of terrorism.
Udensiva-Brenner: The Freedom House report found that the terrorism narrative is one of the biggest factors enabling transnational repression.
Linzer: We found that the majority of cases of physical transnational repression, where an individual is assassinated, kidnapped, detained, they were accused of terrorism by their host government. And that was kind of across the board.
Udensiva-Brenner: They also found that most of the people targeted by transnational repression were of Muslim background.
Linzer: That was the majority of cases we documented. And there are a couple of reasons for this, I think. One is that narrative around terrorism that makes people of Muslim origin particularly vulnerable in transit, for example, but also the prevalence of Muslim majority countries as perpetrators of transnational oppression. So Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, these are countries that engage in transnational repression in a very serious and concentrated way, and so their targets are then largely of Muslim origin.
Udensiva-Brenner: And Central Asian countries engage in transnational repression and they're also—
Linzer: Exactly. Exactly. And then finally, another reason why that kind of demographic trend showed up is that even in countries that are not Muslim majority, often Muslim minority groups are targeted disproportionately. So, think of Uyghur and other Turkic Muslims being targeted by the Chinese government. There's a real focus on those particular groups. And so all of that kind of led to a striking trend.
Udensiva-Brenner: So, the last episode of this podcast is about kleptocracy and the corrosive effects it has on democracies all around the world. And it seems to me like transnational repression has this effect as well. Can you talk about the effects on democracies across the world?
Schenkkan: Yeah. For sure. And we do see this as connected with kleptocracy and with the general issue of the spread of authoritarian practices globally, whether that's emanating from states outside of democracies or whether that's reinforcing authoritarian practices within democracies, which I think is more how we would describe it in a lot of the transnational repression cases.
There's actually an authoritarian dynamic at play where we are detaining people in our immigration system and not providing them with a due-process or lawyers and they're basically not entitled to those rights within the system. And that can then be manipulated for authoritarian ends.
But there are two main ways that it affects democracies. One is of course the rights of the people themselves. And they do have rights, whether they're citizens or permanent residents or undocumented altogether, they still have rights – to freedom of expression, to freedom of association and assembly – those core rights don't change based on their citizenship or their residency status within the country where they are living. So, there's that effect.
The second effect is how it undermines the institutions themselves. Most of what we see in this phenomenon is manipulation of host country institutions. You can do that through Interpol notices. You can do that through direct, like bilateral contacts and pressure, whether it's negative pressure or positive pressure, right? You can corrupt those institutions with money. You can corrupt them with influence, or you can just threaten people and force them to act on your behalf.
And all of that undermines your institutions. So, you see, especially immigration institutions, law enforcement institutions, intelligence institutions in the host countries being forced to behave in ways that they might not otherwise behave, break their own rules basically. And this includes in the Eurasia region, includes some countries where there's a huge amount of investment in trying to build stable institutions in the security services or law enforcement like ministries of interior. And instead you have a foreign actor coming in and basically erasing that work, in a very short period of time by either offering really big financial incentives or some other kind of incentive to get them to break their own rules. And so in that sense, it's really damaging to the idea of this long-term patient building of institutions that democracies are or have been committed to.
Udensiva-Brenner: Can you give some examples of countries from the region where this is happening?
Schenkkan: There's a lot of this in Eurasia. In terms of origin countries Russia, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan, all very significant actors. Areas where it's undermined institutions, I mean, if we look at the kidnapping of Afgan Mukhtarli, who's an Azerbaijani journalist who was living in Georgia, he was kidnapped from Tbilisi in Georgia, it seems with the collusion of some Georgia authorities. And again, this is an area where like, long-term, very serious investment in state-building and strengthening the Georgian state is being undermined because of transnational repression. You've got Azeri services undermining that effort quite directly there.
You see that dynamic all over the region. And it's definitely a very dangerous one and that's part of the reason why we've over time, we see more and more people trying to get into the EU and get outside of the former Soviet Union and the CSTO countries.
Udensiva-Brenner: CSTO, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, is a Russia-led regional version of NATO, it’s just one example of a regional organization built around authoritarian norms. I asked Isabel about how these sorts of regional bodies can affect repressive dynamics.
Linzer: I'm glad you brought this up because this is an area where I think more research would be really helpful and important. We've seen these regional security agreements in the Gulf, in Southeast Asia, kind of pointing to cooperation on transnational repression. Specifically, I think these are challenging because in a lot of cases, they're very opaque. That's definitely the case in the Gulf where sometimes they're even handwritten agreements between different governments that allow them to exchange information or collaborate on detaining people. And that is extremely hard to pierce and understand from the outside.
But also, these regional agreements are much harder to impact for states that might want to do something about transnational repression. So, the Gulf cooperation that is much, much harder for say the United States to have an impact on than the U.S. wanting to reform Interpol. So, they are kind of concentrated areas where it is much harder to protect people who are suffering from transnational oppression.
Udensiva-Brenner: And for this report you had to interview a lot of people who are either victims of transnational repression or potential victims. Can you talk about what that process was like? Especially having to do it over Zoom.
Linzer: Yes, the remote component you're right, is certainly a challenge in the research, so hopefully this is an area that as the pandemic improves, folks can do more research on this. You know, it's really challenging to find people who are comfortable and willing to speak about this problem, because like I said, self-censorship and the risk it poses is a huge, huge barrier.
So, there's, there's that component. But also, there's a really real fear among people who I spoke to in this process, and that's why you'll notice many anonymous quotes or anonymous references in our report, because as researchers, one of our most important roles is to not endanger people further.
I think one of the questions we get a lot in terms of using interviews is the credibility, right? That's a question that comes up, so I think it's also worth talking about, because often these are people who have been accused by the government of certain things, but what happens is, interviewing people from the same country or across multiple countries, such clear patterns start to emerge, that really corroborate the impact of transnational repression: the way that it can build through different tactics – people being harassed online and people fearing for their family members and questioning what they can say out loud or losing trust in members of their community.
And so, through all of these kinds of conversations, with different people, with different backgrounds, these clear patterns start to emerge that I think, more than anything else, looking at the numbers of cases or the numbers of governments that are doing this, talking to people is the most clear way for me to understand the most important impacts of transnational repression and that's on how people can live on a day-to-day basis.
Udensiva-Brenner: And what's next. What are you working on now in terms of transnational repression?
Linzer: Freedom House has a new phase of research that's focusing on host state responses to transnational oppression. Looking at what specific host country governments – so where it's happening – what they can do about it. That is going to hopefully take things to the next level and help protect people, which is of course the ultimate goal there.
Udensiva-Brenner: Nate says that there's a lot of diversity among host countries and how they deal with transnational repression. One of the goals of the next phase of research will be to compare host country responses.
Schenkkan: To try to draw some different lessons about who's doing what, what's working or not working, what are the effects of the different ways of approaching this problem. What are the different policy areas in which you can and should be working and what are different decisions and tradeoffs you can make if you're a policymaker.
Udensiva-Brenner: And you've given some congressional testimony on this topic. Has there been any policy response?
Schenkkan: Yeah, I testified in the Helsinki Commission, I guess a couple of years ago, alongside Alex Cooley, on transactional repression. That was, around the time of the introduction of the first version of what is called the Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention Act, which is a congressional bill, mostly focused on Interpol abuse, that has now been reintroduced in this Congress. So, it was reintroduced I think last month in the current Congress. It's a good bill, definitely addresses a lot of the Interpol issues really head on. So that's one in Congress.
There's definitely a lot of interest in some of the other areas. And I think it's more of a long-term build for getting kind of what is the congressional or legislative set of activities. Not everything has a legislative solution. Some of these things might just be different practices and procedures within law enforcement or immigration enforcement institutions that can be either created by the executive branch through some kind of decisive executive branch action, or can be created by changing those practices over time that those institutions themselves start to reevaluate and think about how they do these things. So, we're exploring those things all the time with different people in the U.S. government and trying to figure out what's kind of a responsible set of solutions for this that doesn't create more problems down the road that we don't anticipate right now.
Udensiva-Brenner: I wondered if there was anything on the topic of transnational repression that left Nate particularly hopeful and he said that he was encouraged by the growing awareness that he was seeing.
Schenkkan: It's meaningful that people are willing to talk about it and are thinking about it openly, and are connecting it to other issues that we have, deeper structural issues that we have, in our own societies, because these things take place in our societies. That's one of the dilemmas about it. And so, the solution is actually something we can find in our society. Just as likely as we can find it outside. And something we do vis-a-vis the origin state.
So, I think that's positive. I think there has been a lot of work in the human rights community, over a long period of time, a decade and more, in terms of building safe places for people to go, exiles, and trying to support exiles in longer-term ways. That's always going to be hard to scale up. It's hard to get that to a really large number. But in terms of supporting activist communities and activists, there's been a lot of positive work in that direction. And I think we're definitely further along than we were, you know, five or 10 years ago.
Udensiva-Brenner: And just to wrap up, what's some of your favorite journalism on this topic that you might be able to recommend to our listeners.
Schenkkan: Wow. Yeah. There's so much amazing journalism on this topic because it's obviously such a big story that this happens. There's some great work that's been done on Chinese transnational repression cases in Foreign Policy a couple of years ago, especially around what's called the Fox Hunt Campaign, which is the campaign against former Communist Party members who have gone abroad.
There's a really outstanding book on Rwanda called Do Not Disturb by Michela Wrong, this came out just a few months ago. That's about Rwanda's campaign abroad as well as about the context in which Rwanda's campaign has emerged.
There's also the work that Michael Schwirtz has done at the New York Times on Russia. You know, kind of the big picture and really deep dive stuff that he's done on Russia's assassinations abroad, some of which are transnational repression and some of which are not so much as directed against people who are Russian nationals, but he kind of connects a lot of those dots.
So maybe those would be my three off the top of my head.
Linzer: Globe and Mail in Canada has some good reporting on Rwanda and transnational repression in particular. Geoffrey York has written a few good, thorough pieces there. And then also on Rwanda, the ABC in Australia had a really extensive longform piece on transnational repression that came out a year or two ago, that details intensively what the Rwandan diaspora community in Australia faces. So that's on Rwanda. There was also in the New Yorker, a piece on Uyghur transnational repression that came out this spring. That again, longform, really, really excellent piece, that would be another one to look at.
Udensiva-Brenner: Cool. Well, thanks so much for working on this really important topic. It's so frightening…
Linzer: Yeah. It really is. Um, it's some intense, intense stuff.
Udensiva-Brenner: That's it for our show. The report Isabel and Nate put together is called Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach: The Global Scale of Transnational Repression, and you can find it in our episode notes and on the Freedom House website. I'm Masha Udensiva-Brenner. Thanks so much for listening to Expert Opinions, Russia Eurasia, a podcast from the Harriman Institute at Columbia University.
If you like what you heard, please take a moment to review us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or Google play. And please subscribe if you haven't done so already. I look forward to talking to you next time.
Isabel Linzer is the research analyst for technology and democracy at Freedom House.
Nate Schenkkan is director of research and strategy at Freedom House. He’s a 2011 alumnus of the Harriman Institute’s MARS-REERS program and a former Eurasianet contributor.
Masha Udensiva-Brenner is print and digital media manager at the Harriman Institute at Columbia University. Any opinions in this podcast do not reflect the positions of the Harriman Institute or Eurasianet.