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Authoritarian Countries Increasingly Target Critics Abroad, Monitor Says

FILE - A protester from the Uighur community living in Turkey holds up an anti-China placard during a protest in Istanbul, Turkey, Oct. 1, 2020. A new Freedom House report says that China's alleged repression of Uighurs extends beyond its borders.

China, Russia, Turkey and Iran are some of the world’s authoritarian countries that have increasingly spread political repression abroad with little consequence, according to a report released Thursday.

Freedom House, a Washington-based democracy advocacy group, identified authoritarian nations that have resorted to tactics in recent years to murder and intimidate critics living outside their borders.

Titled “Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach,” the report said there have been at least 608 acts of physical repression against individuals since 2014 in 79 countries, including the United States. About 3.5 million people were affected by direct or secondary attacks in that time span, the report said.

China was the worst offender, conducting “the most sophisticated, global and comprehensive campaign of transnational repression in the world,” said Freedom House.

China deployed a wide range of tactics against dissidents abroad, including Uighurs, Han Chinese, Tibetans and Falun Gong adherents, according to the report. Bejing also kidnapped exiled activists such as Gui Minhai, a bookseller of Swedish nationality who was relocated back to China from Thailand in 2015.

Turkey ranked a close second in the use of transnational repression, particularly after the July 2016 coup attempt against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The report said Turkey engaged in murders, interstate extraditions, physical threats and “mobility controls” such as passport cancellations and denial of consular assistance.

The report said Russia engaged in “highly aggressive” acts of repression abroad by “heavily” relying on assassinations of people deemed as threats by the Russian government.

The Kremlin’s repression campaign resulted in seven of 26 assassinations or assassination attempts identified worldwide by Freedom House between 2014 and 2020.

The report said Iran expanded its covert campaign of assassinations abroad and harassment of political opponents and dissidents. It linked Iran to five assassinations or assassination attempts in three countries and said at least two assassination plans were thwarted. Among Iran’s targets were journalists and dissidents that authorities frequently called “terrorists.”

In addition to Pakistan and Azerbaijan, all five Central Asian republics — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan — also targeted their nationals abroad with tactics such as assaults and detentions, according to the report. Saudi Arabia, Rwanda and Thailand were also cited for concerted campaigns against their nationals abroad.

A dozen countries, including China, Russia and Turkey, began using criminal listings from the International Criminal Police Organization to suppress individuals. The countries placed names on Interpol’s criminal watch lists, while the agency had little capacity to validate them, the report said.

The report focused primarily on countries the group said methodically targeted relatively large numbers of dissidents and acted with increasing impunity due to the lack of consequences.

Freedom House did not explore U.S. treatment of its dissidents in other countries such as Edward Snowden, who was granted temporary asylum in Russia in 2013 after leaking secret U.S. intelligence. In 2020, he was granted permanent residency in Russia.

Snowden has not complained of the types of treatment other activists have received from their home countries.

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