The world’s authoritarian regimes are persecuting their opponents living abroad more vigorously than ever before and some get away with murder, literally.
A blatant example of the impunity some governments enjoy is Saudi Arabia’s de-facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whose country US President Joe Biden labelled a “pariah” over the 2018 murder and dismemberment of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Yet in June, Saudi made up with Turkey — where the murder happened — and Biden decided to include the kingdom on a tour of the Middle East.
Experts say transnational repression of opposition figures is nothing new, but since digital technologies have allowed dissidents to needle authoritarian regimes from across borders more easily, they have stoked the wrath of strongmen like rarely before.
“The threat perception of dictators or these repressive regimes has increased,” said Marcus Michaelson, a researcher on authoritarianism at the Vrije Universiteit in Brussels.
According to US watchdog Freedom House, there were at least 735 direct, physical incidents of transnational repression between 2014 and 2021, carried out by 36 governments, notably those of China, Turkey, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Rwanda.
Four regimes joined the list in 2021, including Belarus, which diverted an aircraft to arrest an opposition figure.
– ‘Harassment to murder’ –
Spectacular acts like the poisoning of former Russian intelligence agent Sergei Skripal in Britain in 2018, or the killing in 2019 in Berlin of Georgian Chechen Zelimkhan Khangoshvili — attributed to Russia — get the world’s attention, but much of the repression happens under the radar.
“The range of tactics goes from harassment to murder,” said Katia Roux at Amnesty International France.
Turkish journalist Can Dundar, who runs a website and a radio station aimed at Turkey and the Turkish diaspora from exile in Germany, has become a target for the secret apparatus of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
“In the first year we found a Turkish camera crew (…) recording our office and giving all the details of our office, including our address and our daily work schedule, at what time we are there, at what time we are getting out etc, and showing it as the ‘headquarters of the traitors’ making plans against Turkey,” he told AFP.
Turkish intelligence “is very active, especially in Germany and France,” he said, recalling the attack by three men on a Turkish journalist in Berlin in July 2021 who warned him to stop writing about certain topics.
Pakistani journalist Taha Siddiqui, who fled to France after a kidnapping attempt he blamed on his home country’s security services, said he still didn’t actually feel safe in exile, only “safer”.
In 2020 a Pakistani intelligence officer told Siddiqui’s parents that “if Taha thinks he’s safe in Paris, he is mistaken. We can reach anyone anywhere”.
The threat came the same year as the suspicious deaths of a Pakistani journalist in Sweden, and of a Pakistani human rights activist in Canada, and a year before a British court convicted a man for the contract killing of a Pakistani blogger in Dutch exile.
“They have made me paranoid, suspicious, scared, even in exile,” said Siddiqui, who has opened “The Dissident Club” in Paris, a bar dedicated to discussion, exhibitions and screenings.
Digital technologies give repressive regimes a whole new toolkit to sidestep the political cost or diplomatic risk that can come with physical action against dissidents, with “almost no consequences”, said Michaelson.
They have a “commercial market for surveillance technologies” at their disposal, such as the Israeli-made spy software Pegasus, which are cost-effective, he said.
“So they don’t need to invest a lot of manpower or send agents to spy on dissidents abroad,” he said.
A telling example is Egyptian opposition figure Ayman Nour, a friend of Khashoggi, and exiled in Turkey.
Citizen Lab, a body for research into technology, human rights and security, said it found two sets of spyware on Nour’s mobile phone — Pegasus and Predator — operated by two different governments.
– ‘You have to stop’ –
Calling spying “a form or organised crime”, Nour said he always thought of his phone as “a radio that anybody can listen to”.
Amnesty International has identified 11 government clients for Pegasus which allows “the surveillance of anybody in a completely invisible and untraceable way”, said Roux.
Activists in China defending the rights of the Uyghur minority, against which western countries say China is committing “genocide”, often find that digital threats precede physical violence, said Michaelson.
Meiirbek Sailanbek, a member of China’s Kazakh community, said he uninstalled all Chinese apps from his phone when he moved to neighbouring Kazakhstan, and deleted the numbers of his brother and sister who still live in Xinjiang, the Uyghur autonomous region in northwest China.
When the Kazakhstan authorities arrested the head of the Atajurt NGO — which Sailanbek had joined writing social posts under a pseudonym — he fled the country, settling in Paris.
But Kazakhstan’s authorities identified him, and since then the Chinese government is threatening his brother and sister with prison if he continues his activism.
“Meiirbek, your sister and brother are in danger, you have to stop,” said a message forwarded to him by his mother.
Sailanbek faces arrest if he returns to China or Kazakhstan, but he considers Turkey, Pakistan, Arab nations and Russia to be off-limits too because he believes they would give in to Chinese pressure to hand him over.
G20 finance chiefs meet as Indonesia warns of energy, food catastrophe
Group of 20 finance ministers and central bank chiefs met in Indonesia Friday for talks on the fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with the host warning them failure to tackle energy and food crises would be catastrophic.
The two-day meeting on the resort island of Bali started under the shadow of a war that has roiled markets, spiked food prices and stoked breakneck inflation, a week after Moscow’s top diplomat walked out of talks with the forum’s foreign ministers.
In her opening remarks, Indonesian Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati called on ministers to work together with a spirit of “cooperation” because “the world is watching” for solutions.
“The cost of our failure is more than we can afford,” she told delegates. “The humanitarian consequences for the world and for many low-income countries would be catastrophic.”
Top global finance figures, including US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, were to discuss the rebound from the coronavirus pandemic, but the Ukraine war and its impact on an already brittle global recovery have dominated the agenda.
Canada’s Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland, who has Ukrainian heritage, told Russia’s delegation they were responsible for “war crimes” in Ukraine because of their support for the invasion, a Canadian official said.
“It is not only generals who commit war crimes, it is the economic technocrats who allow the war to happen and to continue,” Freeland said in the opening session, according to the official.
Both Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov and Ukrainian Finance Minister Serhiy Marchenko are participating virtually in the meeting.
Moscow instead sent Russian Deputy Finance Minister Timur Maksimov and Bank of Russia official Elizaveta Danilova to attend the talks in person.
Freeland went on to say the war was currently “the single biggest threat” to the global economy, according to the official, echoing comments from Yellen a day earlier.
Yellen called Russia’s war in Ukraine the “greatest challenge” to the global economy and said members of Putin’s government “have no place” at the talks.
After Russia’s delegation addressed the meeting, a Western official told AFP Moscow did not send their finance minister or central bank governor in person “after the very direct criticism” that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov faced last week at talks in Bali.
– No walkout –
The meeting has largely focused on the food and energy crises that are hitting economies across the world as a result of the war.
Italian Minister for Economy Daniele Franco addressed the ministers with the message that they “have a key role in avoiding that food insecurity turns into a humanitarian crisis”, according to an Italian official.
Yellen is pressing G20 allies for a price cap on Russian oil to choke off President Vladimir Putin’s war chest and pressure Moscow to end its invasion while bringing down energy costs.
Yellen in April led a multinational walkout of finance officials as Russian delegates spoke at a G20 meeting in Washington.
But there was no walkout on Friday after Yellen would not be drawn on a possible repeat of that joint action a day earlier.
There is also unlikely to be a final communique issued when talks end on Saturday because of disagreements with Russia.
– ‘Act together’ –
G20 chair Indonesia -– which pursues a neutral foreign policy –- has refrained from uninviting Russia despite Western pressure
“This is not an easy time given our diverse membership… and also the differences in our position and views,” said Indrawati.
“We need to act together to demonstrate why G20 deserves its reputation as the premier forum for international cooperation.”
But it has been difficult to get all parties around the table in person.
Alongisde Moscow and Kyiv’s ministers, Chinese Finance Minister Liu Kun and Britain’s new Finance Minister Nadhim Zahawi were only attending virtually.
International Monetary Fund chief Kristalina Georgieva will appear in person after saying Wednesday the global economic outlook had “darkened significantly” because of Moscow’s invasion.
European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde is participating virtually, but World Bank chief executive David Malpass will not attend.
The meeting is a prelude to the leaders’ summit on the Indonesian island in November that was meant to focus on the global recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
Other issues being tackled by the ministers included digital financial inclusion –- with more than a billion of the world’s population still without access to a bank account -– and the deadline for an international tax rules overhaul.
China officials haul in Alibaba execs over massive data heist: report
Alibaba shares sank on Friday after a report said the tech giant’s executives had been called in for meetings with Chinese officials over the theft of a vast police database.
A hacker last month put on sale what they claimed was the personal information of hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens — which, if true, would make it one of the biggest data heists in history.
Cybersecurity analysts subsequently confirmed that the data — partly verified by AFP — was stored on Alibaba’s cloud servers, apparently by the Shanghai police.
The company’s shares slumped 5.7 percent at the open in Hong Kong on Friday, hours after The Wall Street Journal reported that Shanghai authorities had called in its executives for talks in connection with the heist.
The Journal cited unnamed people familiar with the matter as saying the executives included Alibaba Cloud vice president Chen Xuesong, who heads the unit’s digital public security work.
The report added that senior managers from Alibaba and its cloud unit held a virtual meeting on July 1 after a seller advertised the stolen database in a cybercrime forum.
As part of an internal investigation, company engineers have cut access to the breached database and have started reviewing related code, the Journal said, citing employees familiar with Alibaba’s response to the hack.
The database is believed to have been stored on Alibaba’s servers using outdated and insecure technology.
Alibaba did not immediately respond to an AFP request to confirm the information in the report.
China maintains a sprawling nationwide surveillance network that collects huge amounts of data from its citizens, ostensibly for security purposes.
Beijing has passed stronger data protection laws in recent years as public awareness of data security and privacy issues has grown.
There are few ways, however, for ordinary citizens to stop the government from gathering information on them.
The sample of 750,000 entries posted online by the hacker showed citizens’ names, mobile phone numbers, national ID numbers, addresses, dates of birth and the police reports they had filed.
The hacker wanted 10 bitcoin — around $200,000 at the time — for the entire database.
Some of the information appeared to have been drawn from express delivery services, while other data included summaries of police incident reports in Shanghai over more than a decade until 2019.
At least four people out of more than a dozen contacted by AFP last week confirmed their details were listed in the database.
Asian stocks mixed as recession fears grow, China data falls well short
Stocks were mixed in Asia on Friday as soaring inflation and a series of interest rate hikes around the world continued to fan recession fears, while a big miss on Chinese growth added to anxiety about the world’s biggest economies.
Below-par earnings from Wall Street titans JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley compounded worries that companies’ bottom lines would be hit by the economic fallout from a series of issues including rising prices, monetary policy tightening and the war in Ukraine.
After rate hikes by a number of countries this week, investors expect the Federal Reserve to lift rates this month by 75 basis points as officials battle to rein in decades-high inflation, though some observers suggest a one-percentage-point move could be on the cards.
The latest outsized US inflation print this week — caused by a spike in energy prices — followed last Friday’s news that jobs creation remained strong in June, giving the Fed room to press ahead with its campaign to suck cash out of the financial system.
However, while experts warn that raising rates too much risks hammering the economy, the bank has made it clear its number-one priority is bringing down prices.
This has sent the dollar racing higher across the board, and Steve Englander at Standard Chartered Bank warned there was no end in sight to the unit’s advance.
The currency’s strength is “largely a flight to safety”, he told Bloomberg TV.
“The problem is until we get to see some light at the end of the tunnel with respect to either inflation coming off or oil prices coming off because of supply creation rather than demand destruction, it’s hard to call a top to it.”
With investors increasingly pricing in a recession next year, equities are struggling to see any upward momentum.
Wall Street’s three main indexes mostly fell, with sentiment weighed by the disappointing reports from JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Morgan Stanley. They will be followed over the next few days by Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Bank of America.
In early Asian trade, Hong Kong dropped and mainland Chinese markets fluctuated after data showed China’s economy grew just 0.4 percent in the second quarter as it was battered by Covid lockdowns in major cities including Shanghai and Beijing.
The reading was well off the 1.6 percent predicted by analysts in an AFP survey, though there is a hope that it will provide fresh impetus to authorities to unveil new stimulus measures.
Elsewhere, Tokyo, Singapore, Seoul and Taipei rose but Sydney, Wellington, Manila and Jakarta fell.
On currency markets the euro continues to hover around parity with the greenback as the European Central Bank grapples with a range of issues including an energy crisis amid fears Russia will cut off its gas supplies in retaliation for Ukraine war sanctions.
Meanwhile, policymakers have yet to lift interest rates — leaving the bank well behind the Fed — on concerns about the vast differences, or “fragmentation”, between the eurozone’s individual sovereign bond rates.
Added to that is new political upheaval in Italy as the government there teeters on the brink.
“With a weak currency, sky-high inflation, recession risk due to the energy crisis and political turmoil in Italy, the ECB is facing an impossible mission to solve all its problems simultaneously with monetary policy,” said SPI Asset Management’s Stephen Innes.
“Front-loading a 50 basis point hike and revealing a solid anti-fragmentation tool seems the optimal solution for the central bank… but that is likely not enough to support a sustainable euro rebound.”
Traders are keeping tabs on the Middle East as Biden tours the region, with his visit to Riyadh later in the day the main focus as he tries to persuade the kingdom to help bring down crude prices by pumping more.
While both main contracts have fallen in recent weeks to below $100 owing to demand fears caused by a possible recession, there are disagreements over the outlook for the market, with some predicting it will surge to new highs and others warning it could fall to $65.
– Key figures at around 0230 GMT –
Tokyo – Nikkei 225: UP 0.6 percent at 26,797.47 (break)
Hong Kong – Hang Seng Index: DOWN 0.5 percent at 20638.71
Shanghai – Composite: UP 0.2 percent at 3,287.59
Euro/dollar: UP at $1.0033 from $1.0022 Thursday
Pound/dollar: UP at $1.1839 from $1.1826
Euro/pound: UP at 84.75 pence from 84.72 pence
Dollar/yen: DOWN at 138.91 yen from 138.93 yen
West Texas Intermediate: UP 0.3 percent at $96.08 per barrel
Brent North Sea crude: UP 0.4 percent at $99.50 per barrel
New York – Dow: DOWN 0.5 percent at 30,630.17 (close)
London – FTSE 100: DOWN 1.6 percent at 7,039.81 (close)
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