Editorial: The long arm of repressive regimes

Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi fled the repression of his country to come to America. But even becoming a U.S. resident didn’t keep him safe. Not when the Saudi government, disregarding borders, law and human life, kidnapped and killed Khashoggi in an Istanbul consulate.

The brutal, brazen slaying was a case of transnational repression in which “human rights activists, dissidents, and their families face a worldwide pattern of violence and intimidation perpetrated by authoritarian regimes they hoped to avoid by fleeing abroad,” according to Freedom House, a “nonpartisan organization dedicated to the expansion of democracy and freedom around the world.”

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The scale and scope of this insidious practice was detailed in a recent Freedom House report, with a particularly close focus on six offending nations: China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Rwanda. Saudi Arabia is a longtime U.S. ally, and other listed countries have tight ties to America, too, including Turkey, a NATO nation, and Rwanda, often held up as a development model.

Since 2014, Freedom House has tracked at least 608 cases of “direct, physical transnational repression” including assassinations, assaults, abductions, detentions and unlawful deportations. Most cases involve courageous but relatively unknown expatriates. Others target well-known figures such as Khashoggi and Rwandan genocide-era hero Paul Rusesabagina, whose lifesaving efforts were depicted in the hit film “Hotel Rwanda.” In September, Rwandan officials allegedly kidnapped Rusesabagina from the United Arab Emirates.

Other methods of transnational repression include coercion by proxy, in which the family members of dissidents are targeted; mobility controls, such as canceling passports; and spyware, online smear campaigns and other forms of digital control.

Freedom House estimates that 3.5 million people worldwide have been affected by direct attacks or secondary intimidation tactics. At least 31 countries have instigated transnational repression in 79 host countries, resulting in 160 unique pairings between origin and host country — including established democracies like the United States.

Ending any U.S. culpability in this pernicious practice should be a Biden administration priority. Doing so would reflect the kind of U.S. leadership that President Joe Biden pledged. “Working together with other allies as the Biden administration has already promised to do in other areas of its democracy agenda would certainly be more effective in transnational repression,” Nate Schenkkan, co-author of the report, told an editorial writer.

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An unmistakable signal would be more accountability for Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, who the CIA and U.N. believe is likely linked to Khashoggi’s killing. “The previous administration was fairly open, at least President (Donald) Trump was, about defending Mohamed bin Salman and the Saudi government from very strong pressure, especially from Congress, to hold the government accountable for Khashoggi’s murder,” Schenkkan said. “And that defense really undermined any sense of accountability.”

Biden can bolster his global democracy agenda by insisting on accountability and leading the fight against the scourge of transnational repression.