Are political exiles safe?
The arrest of a Belarusian journalist is part of a 'new norm' of tactics used by authoritarian regimes, say critics
The father of arrested Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich has said he fears his son has been “beaten and tortured” after a video emerged of the 26-year-old that appears to have been recorded under duress.
Protasevich is said to be a “personal enemy” of Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, according to CNBC, having been one of the original editors of Nexta, a Telegram blogging channel that was one of the most important sources of public information during last summer’s mass anti-regime demonstrations.
Protasevich’s Lithuania-bound Ryanair flight was forced to divert to Minsk as it flew over Belarusian airspace on Sunday, with Belarusian authorities citing a bomb threat on board and scrambling a fighter jet to intercept it.
A “trembling” Protasevich was led away by police shortly after landing in Minsk, reports The Guardian, with the journalist telling fellow passengers: “I’m facing the death penalty here.”
In the clip released late on Monday night, the opposition journalist appeared to confess to crimes he had been charged with by the Belarusian state, but colleagues and state opposition leaders claim he was under pressure to admit wrongdoing. His father told the BBC that he was “really afraid” of how his son would be treated, adding: “This sort of thing shouldn’t be happening in the 21st century at the heart of Europe.”
A ‘new norm’?
Critics say the arrest is indicative of a larger trend of “transnational repression” as states increasingly reach across international borders to arrest or threaten their dissident citizens.
What has happened to Protasevich “belongs alongside” other stories of dissident arrest, harassment and killing by strongmen-led governments, says Anne Applebaum in The Atlantic.
Events such as the Salisbury poisonings, where a nerve agent was used on British soil in an attempt to kill enemies of the Kremlin, the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi inside Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul, the assassination of Iranian dissidents in the Netherlands and Turkey, and the kidnapping and detention of Chinese nationals living abroad, all form part of this “new norm”, says Applebaum. “Authoritarian states in pursuit of their enemies no longer feel the need to respect passports, borders, diplomatic customs, or – now – the rules of air-traffic control,” she writes.
Indeed, although “rules-based international order” is often considered a “dull term”, the decision to force Protasevich’s Ryanair flight to land in Belarus is a breach of it, and it sets a “dangerous global precedent”, writes Gideon Rachman in the Financial Times.
Larger countries “that also like to pursue their domestic enemies overseas” – Russia, China and Iran – will be watching the episode “closely”, says Rachman. After all, “if even tiny Belarus can demand that a plane divert to Minsk, what is to stop the Iranians from compelling a plane to land in Tehran, or the Russians from forcing a jet down over Siberia?”
Freedom House, a US-based pro-democracy group, recently released a report that points to six countries using “assassinations, illegal deportations [and] abductions” to silence dissidents and “control their citizens”, which it called “transnational repression”.
It said China, Turkey, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Iran currently wage the most “aggressive” campaigns of transnational repression, with the report compiling more than 600 cases since 2014.
How safe is the EU for exiles?
In Protasevich’s home country of Belarus, other exiles are beginning to worry their “adopted European homes aren’t necessarily safe”, reports Bloomberg.
Exiled Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who was forced to flee the state nine months ago, told reporters she had taken “the same flight” from Athens a week ago.
“I could be in Roman’s place right now. From now on, no person who flies over Belarusian airspace is guaranteed basic safety,” she said.
Vladimir Milov, a critic of Russian president Vladimir Putin and currently living in Lithuania, said the event had broken the “illusion” of safety he felt living in the European Union, often seen as a safe haven for journalists and exiles escaping from authoritarian regimes.
“There is an illusion that you live on the territory of the European Union under the protection of the European police and everything seems OK,” he said.
Indeed, the bloc’s “values of political pluralism and freedom of speech, [and] rights-based protection” means fleeing dissidents have expected to live in relative safety within the EU, says OpenDemocracy. But a “steady stream of harassment and attacks, extraditions, deportations and kidnappings” has put that idea “under serious strain” in recent years.
Lithuanian officials have asked for more funds to protect Belarusian dissidents residing in the country, citing an increased risk, while Poland’s foreign minister has warned opposition activists they are “moving targets” for the KGB.
But the threat of arrest by authoritarian regimes doesn’t simply extend to their citizens. Increasingly foreigners who have criticised such regimes are at risk too.
Bill Browder, the US-born British investor who led the successful campaign to impose “Magnitsky sanctions” on Moscow, has been repeatedly targeted by the Kremlin. In 2019, The Times reported that Russia had tried to have Browder arrested by Interpol eight times.