Transnational repression: a tool that extends authoritarian government’s capacity for repression

Perhaps not-so-well-known, transnational repression constitutes a threat to human rights that has been going on for decades. The phenomenon, which entails governments reaching beyond their borders to silence or deter dissent by committing human rights abuses against their nationals or former nationals, has been extensively documented by Human Rights Watch. The 2018 murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia brought this issue to popular awareness.

Alongside killings, the methods of transnational repression include unlawful removals (expulsions, extraditions, and deportations), abductions and forced disappearances, targeting of relatives, abuse of consular services, and digital transnational repression. Government critics, dissidents, human rights defenders, civil society activists, journalists, opposition party members, and their families and friends are the main victims of this type of repression. In addition, women as a group are specially targeted when attempting to flee their families or their government´s restrictive laws. Several cases reported in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain exemplify this burdensome reality.

In January 2022, after the Bahraini authorities issued a Red Notice through the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), Ahmed Jaffer Muhammad, a Bahraini critic of the government, was extradited from Serbia, the country he had previously fled after suffering torture and ill-treatment when detained in Bahrain. Serbia did so while ignoring an order from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) pending more information on the risks of mistreatment. Now, the critic is serving life in prison in Bahrain following allegations that he was tortured while in custody.

Saudi women are among those who have tried to flee their families to escape the rules of a strict male guardianship system that denies them the autonomy to make decisions about their own lives. Families of these women, supported by Saudi authorities, had tried to bring them back, sometimes successfully. In April 2017, Dina Ali Lasloom aimed to flee their family by flying to Australia, but when transiting in Manila, she was prevented from boarding the plane to her final destination. Apparently, two airline security officials and two men -later confirmed as Lasloom’s uncles- were seen carrying her with duct tape on her mouth, feet, and hands. According to Bloomberg, after being sent back to Saudi Arabia, Lasloom was held without charge under protective custody in a detention facility for women under 30 years until the authorities could resolve the case. In January 2019, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun also attempted to flee her family by traveling to Australia. During a connection in Thailand, however, she was stopped by the Thai authorities, who planned to put her on a flight back home. Global pressure on the Asian country was essential to allow her to travel to Canada, where she finally received asylum.

It is also worth emphasizing the government’s punishment of the families of individuals who abandon the country following persecution. In this sense, there are instances where relatives have been harassed, threatened, arbitrarily arrested, banned from traveling abroad, and even killed. In Bahrain, authorities have targeted the wife, son, and brother and mother-in-law of the founder of the Bahrain Institute for Human Rights and Democracy –Sayed al-Wadaei-, in exile in the UK. The families of Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident based in Canada, and of Saad Al-Jabri, a former top Saudi intelligence official, suffered similar repression in Saudi Arabia.

Although mostly understood as referring to authoritarian governments, cases of transnational repression have also been assisted by democratic administrations, as seen in Serbia’s involvement in the extradition of a Bahraini dissident. Furthermore, this case also highlights governments’ misuse of Interpol’s red notices to target human rights activists abroad. Red notices, formal requests of the National Central Bureaus (NCBs) in the organization, are issued to locate wanted individuals for detention, arrest, or restriction of movement. When put to the wrong use, these notices represent a major concern, especially in countries with authoritarian regimes. In the Arab Gulf region, for example, this has become a political strategy used by governments to suppress dissent and target political opponents. With this, a need for increased vigilance and reform within Interpol’s operational framework has emerged.

Sometimes downplayed, the phenomenon of transnational repression should be as disturbing as the efforts of some governments to silence dissent or target human rights defenders at home. Also, this practice demands putting pressure on compliant democratic countries, which should be easier to hold accountable. However, more scrutiny must be exerted around this reality to accomplish this endeavor.