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Foreign Governments Routinely Suppress Dissidents in US, GAO Finds

Multiple countries around the world frequently take steps to repress the activities of their critics and dissidents based in the United States, a recent report from the Government Accountability Office found, calling into question the ability of law enforcement agencies to effectively curtail it.

The study defines the practice, known as “transnational repression,” or TNR, as “when governments, either directly or through others, reach across borders to silence dissent from diasporas and exiles, including journalists, human rights defenders, civil society activists and political opponents.”

The GAO report presents data collected by the Department of Homeland Security in 2022 that found that multiple countries — China, Iran, Russia, Rwanda, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — are “routine perpetrators” of transnational repression on U.S. soil or against U.S.-based persons.

Examples run the gamut from physical threats — including targeted assassination and abduction, to digital threats and harassment — to indirect threats of harm or imprisonment targeting friends and relatives who remain under these governments’ direct control.

While many of the activities constituting TNR are illegal, others exist in a legal gray area, making it difficult for authorities to document the full range and prevalence of the activity being directed at U.S. persons.

Multiple examples

The report cites a number of well-publicized incidents, including the assassination of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi Arabian government in Istanbul in 2018, and a violent attack by agents of the Turkish government on protesters in Washington in 2017.

The report also notes multiple examples that have received less media attention, including China’s jailing of dozens of family members of six U.S.-based Uyghur journalists and the Russian abduction of a U.S. citizen in Moscow and his rendition to Belarus.

The report also highlights the case of VOA journalist Masih Alinejad, who was targeted for abduction by agents of Iran in a plot broken up by the Department of Justice in 2021.

Experts said that while they were well aware of the existence of TNR activities in the U.S., some were nevertheless surprised by the report’s findings.

“I study foreign influence for a living, but I was still surprised by the extent of transnational repression in the U.S. that they documented,” said Ben Freeman, director of the Democratizing Foreign Policy program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. “It was a lot more broad-based than I thought.”

Freeman told VOA, “I think a lot of us are operating under what is apparently a flawed assumption that our government has all the tools it needs to push back on transnational repression, but the report very much makes clear that that’s not the case at all.”

Improvement needed

The GAO found that U.S. law enforcement agencies need to improve their ability to recognize when foreign governments are acting within the United States to suppress the activities of dissidents and other critics, and to develop a common understanding of what constitutes TNR and what legal remedies exist to combat it.

One difficulty is that when state and local law enforcement authorities are made aware of illegal activity related to TNR, they don’t always recognize the international dimensions of the case, and fail to report it to federal authorities. In other cases, the report said, many victims are so used to government repression in their home countries that they don’t bother to report it when it happens in the U.S.

The report recommends that major federal law enforcement agencies, including the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security work together to establish a common definition of TNR.

In addition, it recommends that the attorney general assess gaps in the ability of law enforcement to respond to TNR, and recommend legislation that might fill those gaps, if necessary.

The report asks the Department of State to spearhead an effort to collect information on incidents of TNR from multiple law enforcement agencies, and to take steps to enforce existing rules that forbid certain shipments of arms to countries known to engage in a pattern of TNR.

It notes that some of the nations recognized as frequent perpetrators of TNR, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are also among the largest beneficiaries of U.S. arms shipments.

Providing a ‘clear deterrent’

Experts told VOA that if Congress were to take steps to make transnational repression itself illegal in the U.S., it might change the calculus of some of the state actors that engage in it.

“I think it would be beneficial to make TNR illegal, because that provides a clear deterrent to the countries engaged in it,” said Colin P. Clarke, a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center, a New York-based think tank.

“The more extreme aspects of TNR are illegal, e.g. targeted killings, but for things like intimidation and harassment, it’s often allowed to fly below the radar, especially if there is no physical violence involved,” he said. “But I firmly believe that when countries like China, Iran and others believe they can get away with even minor transgressions, it will encourage them to go further. Give an inch, they take a mile.”

While law enforcement can do part of the job, Clarke said, the State Department also has a role to play.

“There is absolutely a diplomatic piece to this and it boils down to how countries want to spend their political capital,” he said. “In the past, TNR was something… left to DoJ as a criminal justice issue. But conveying concerns over TNR to other countries, and indeed working with both carrot and stick, should be something that countries strongly consider.”

Source : VOA News