For those who have dared to cross an aggressive authoritarian government, seeking refuge in a foreign country no longer guarantees security.
You’re not safe anywhere.
Saudi Arabia’s Jamal Khashoggi, a sometimes-dissident and U.S. resident who died in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul earlier this month, is just one example. This spring, Russian agents poisoned a former intelligence officer in Britain. China recently summoned the president of Interpol home from France for interrogation, the latest in a long list of score-settling operations (including kidnappings), usually under the guise of fighting corruption. A Turkish official said earlier this year that the country had seized 80 of its own citizens working abroad for a cleric accused by the government of plotting a coup. Early last year, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un had his half-brother killed with a nerve agent in Malaysia.
This isn’t a totally new phenomenon, of course. In 1940, an attacker buried an ice pick in the skull of Stalin’s great rival, Leon Trotsky, in Mexico City. In 1978, Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov died of ricin poisoning in London, probably from a poison-tipped umbrella. The poisoning of former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko in London was a major scandal a decade ago.
Still, this feels different, as if score-settling with one’s own citizens abroad is creeping into the mainstream. Most often, it’s because the leader has a thin skin and has concluded that no one’s going to stop him. If there is an international reaction, it’s likely to be fleeting and half-hearted. Dismiss this as someone else’s problem if you like. But it’s another way the international order is giving way, to be replaced by a free-for-all.
Kim didn’t pay much of a price for using VX nerve agent on his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, at the Kuala Lumpur airport. A year and a half later, his position seems stronger than ever.
Khashoggi wasn’t the only dissident the Saudis had their eyes on. This past week the Washington Post, for whom Khashoggi wrote, related the story of Omar Abdulaziz, one of Khashoggi’s collaborators, who has asylum in Canada. Over a series of meetings, Saudis who claimed to be emissaries Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman tried to lure Abdulaziz back home. They even brought one of his brothers along.
They tried to entice Abdulaziz to the Saudi consulate for a new passport, something that he’s now particularly glad he didn’t do. When Abdulaziz refused to go back, Saudi officials arrested two of his brothers and eight friends.
The Post also cites the case of Loujain Hathoul, a female Saudi activist who was abducted off the streets of Abu Dhabi, and of a dissident prince who lives in Germany and says he was the target of a similar plot this fall.
It quotes Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch, as saying Saudi Arabia “is sending a very deliberate and clear signal, saying you’re never going to be free.”
Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan are sending much the same message.
Other than score settling, it’s hard to see what Putin got out of the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in England early this year. Skripal was not a threat; by most accounts he wasn’t even an important pawn in the East-West spy game. But Putin, the former KGB agent, holds particular contempt for those who betrayed the country. And a mysterious, gruesome death would serve as a warning to anyone tempted to follow suit. Western countries retaliated by throwing out dozens of Russian diplomats, but relations with the West already were bad.
You can understand – even appreciate – Xi’s drive to root out corruption in China. It wouldn’t be a big surprise if the Interpol official, Meng Hongwei, had some things to answer for. He is also a vice minister of public security in the Chinese government. But Xi, China’s president-for-as-long-as-he-wants-to-be, has used his anti-corruption drive to consolidate power. Here, courtesy of Foreign Policy magazine, is a look at China’s long campaign against government officials, business figures and dissidents – even if they are citizens of foreign countries.
Perhaps nothing will stop Xi, and only sharp intelligence work can keep the assassins away from another hapless Russian. But you can bet that others are paying attention. If Bin Salman and Erdogan get away with it, some of them will want to try, too.