In the weeks that followed, mass protests took place across the country with many believing that the poll was rigged. Three of the women who stood in opposition to Lukashenko disappeared from sight or fled the country in fear for their lives after the election.
Speaking from exile in Lithuania, Viacorka said in a subsequent interview that even in Vilnius, he had received death threats and made to feel unsafe. “There are no limits for this regime. I have a special application which sends a signal to my friends and family if something happens to me.”
While skyjacking is in itself a very unusual act, this kind of transnational repression is increasingly common in a world where authoritarians are less afraid of consequences.
Schenkkan’s report explains that Rwanda’s government claimed they had “achieved his return through ‘an international arrest warrant,’ only for the authorities in the United Arab Emirates to deny that they had cooperated in the return.” This was claimed, the report says, to add some legitimacy to the abduction.
Freedom House found that transnational repression is becoming a normal phenomenon, noting that many governments were using the same methods to attack their critics abroad. Those methods ranged from outright detention to online intimidation. Alarmingly, it concludes that the “consequences for transnational repression are currently insufficient to deter further abuse.”
These trends of copycat repression and insufficient consequences have not gone unnoticed by dissidents elsewhere. And for many, the case in Belarus has stoked further fears.
“With China and Russia arduously promoting authoritarianism, leaders have more confidence in committing human rights violations,” says Nathan Law, a Hong Kong human rights activist exiled in London. “I may now need to not only avoid going to countries where China has good relationships, but also taking planes flying over their territory,” he said, following the detention of Protasevich in Belarus.
Why are the consequences so insufficient for egregious offenders? Tatyana Margolin, Eurasia director at Open Society Foundations, thinks it’s a cocktail of a rise in global authoritarianism and a growing indifference to those leaders from citizens of democratic nations.
“We can safely say that the authoritarian tide has moved across the world, including in the US under Trump’s presidency,” Margolin says, pointing to Donald Trump’s perceived love of strongmen in countries like Russia and Saudi Arabia.
“Citizens in the West are less bothered about the plight of migrants now, so are less compelled to have sympathy for people seeking refuge. This has led to immigration policies that make attaining refugee status harder and people easier to target,” she adds.
Trump’s friends in Russia and Saudi Arabia have been guilty of some of the worst examples of transnational repression in recent years.
Multiple Western nations, including the US, imposed sanctions on Russian companies and individuals, and expelled Russian diplomats in the wake of the Salisbury attack, though it’s unclear if these actions have cowed Moscow.
Vladimir Ashurkov, another opposition figure, says that the “situation with Roman Protasevich is probably every dissident’s nightmare.” Speaking from London, he adds that he has “no doubt that Russian security services are capable of conducting assassinations,” and expresses concern that Lukashenko “raised it to a new level with the usage of a hoax bomb” — a concern of many who fear that what one authoritarian leader gets away with, others emulate.
The most reported incident in recent years was probably the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018. Numerous reports have pointed the finger at the inner circle of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but no real action has been taken against Riyadh’s most powerful man.
Ali Al-Ahmed, a high-profile dissident based in Washington DC, says that he avoids traveling for fear of being “taken or killed.” “It happened to Jamal and it could happen to me,” he says, adding that traveling to other Arab countries is not an option because he fears being “captured and sold” back to the Saudi government.
Al-Ahmed also explains that even with the security that should come with living in the US, he is still subjected to intimidation online. “People accuse me of being a terrorist, presumably to make Americans nervous of me and to build a case for having me arrested and extradited.”
Despite authorities in the US knowing the kind of misery Al-Ahmed lives with, he says “we have to be realistic.” He says that even countries like the US and UK, which bill themselves as human rights defenders, have to have a “pragmatic” relationship with Saudi Arabia.
“If they gain something from placing sanctions on MBS, they will. If they need to maintain a relationship, they will make a load of noise but will put sanctions on lesser figures,” he adds.
What can be done to make Western governments care and act? For now, very little. The trend towards more inward-looking societies has existed for some time — and the coronavirus pandemic has done nothing to help.
“We are moving towards a state-centric world view which has resulted in migration policies that are more interested in national security than refugees,” explains Schenkkan.
This insular, nationalist thinking means it’s harder to make people care about things that happen to other people. Margolin believes that the Belarus arrest will be old news very soon.
“There is outrage across the world, but how long will it last? It will be replaced by another story and things in Belarus will go back to normal. The international community must stand with the people of Belarus and ensure that doesn’t happen,” she says.
The dire situation facing political dissidents living in exile is unlikely to improve soon. Until Western leaders make meaningful stands against countries like China, Saudi Arabia, Russia and many others, the benefits of capturing a political opponent for domestic reasons will outweigh the risk.
And, unfortunately for the people this most affects, that won’t happen while so many of the world’s largest democracies place human rights below economic or strategic interests with some of the most oppressive regimes on earth.
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