The FBI investigates and brings to prosecution the increasingly common crime of transnational repression, which occurs when agents of foreign governments stalk, intimidate or assault people in the United States.
Many autocratic governments harass and intimidate their own nationals who have fled for safety and who live in the U.S. or elsewhere abroad. The goal of the harassment is to silence any dissent that can be raised against the regime, usually involving a government’s human rights abuses such as genocide, torture, forced disappearances and other atrocities carried out on a massive scale.
Transnational repression aims to prevent people from speaking out about the conditions in their country of origin and to further oppress people who remain in that country and who have attempted to protest the existing atrocities.
The FBI enumerates many forms that transnational repression (TNR) can take, including:
- Computer hacking
- Physical assaults
- Attempted kidnapping
- Forcing or coercing the victim to return to the home country
- Threatening or detaining family members in the home country
- Freezing financial assets
- Online disinformation campaigns
TNR is escalating in frequency. Between 2014 and 2023, the organization Freedom House reported 854 incidents of TNR carried out by 38 countries — and targeted victims include people in the United States.
This crime is an increasingly common practice in the 21st century due to mass migration, global political activism, and the availability and sophistication of surveillance equipment. The ubiquitous presence of social media adds a further dimension that can be manipulated at a macro level with serious micro-level harm.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the world’s worst offender.
The CCP is carrying out a genocide against Uyghur (wee-ger) people and other Turkic ethnic minorities in China. The CCP intends to eliminate them to increase ethnic homogeneity and government control and to erase them from a strategic and resource-rich region of northwest China.
Uyghurs have fled from China since 2014, when the CCP launched a brutal crackdown against this small Muslim minority. While Uyghurs thought they had fled to safety and security from the CCP, the reality is very different. In a study we conducted last year of Uyghurs in the U.S., one respondent said, “I was feared,” referring to being harassed, surveilled and threatened with punishment to her loved ones back in China. Like all targeted victims of TNR, she lives with constant dread and stress.
The FBI has arrested many Chinese nationals operating in the U.S., as well as some U.S. citizens working on behalf of the CCP, for the felony crime of TNR.
We are very concerned today about the safety and security of Russians who oppose President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Dissidents in Russia have faced persecution since the war began in February 2022. Hundreds have been jailed, including journalists, human rights defenders, activists and ordinary citizens, for speaking out, attending peaceful protests and attempting to avoid conscription into Putin’s army. The Russian government labels them “national traitors.”
At least 900,000 Russians have fled the country since the invasion, according to the Washington Post. Thousands have arrived in the U.S., and dozens are now in Minnesota.
It is highly likely that Russia will continue to target not only dissidents within Russia but those outside its borders as well, bringing Russian-enacted TNR into the U.S.
U.S. laws that address this crime are inadequate. There are new efforts in Congress, in response to the increasing threat posed by TNR, especially from China, to bring a whole-of-government response to prevention and prosecution.
Perhaps the most dangerous and destructive outcome of transnational repression, which is a direct crime committed by a foreign entity on our soil, is that it weakens the fabric of democracy. Intimidation silences speech and limits people’s participation in civil society, which are the foundations of a free society. This is the ultimate harm of transnational repression — and the goal of those who perpetrate it.
To report incidents of transnational repression, contact the FBI at tips.fbi.gov or 800-225-5324.
Speakers will comment on the crime of transnational repression on Thursday, Sept. 28, at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, Great Room, 875 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, from 11 a.m to 1 p.m. At this event, World Without Genocide, The Museum of Russian Art, and Russians Against War-Minnesota will host an opportunity to write letters to dissidents imprisoned in Russia for protesting the war in Ukraine.
A similar program will be held at Mount Zion Temple, 1300 Summit Avenue, St. Paul, on Thursday, Oct. 26, from 6 to 8 p.m.
These programs are free and open to all; no Russian language skill is needed and no reservations are necessary.
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is executive director of World Without Genocide at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul.