The new dis­ap­peared

From China to Saudi Ara­bia, to­day's au­thor­i­tar­ian regimes are sud­denly and covertly ab­duct­ing peo­ple, in­clud­ing well-known fig­ures and high-rank­ing of­fi­cials, to be de­tained or worse. It's an old and ef­fec­tive tac­tic for si­lenc­ing op­po­nents, but those rev

Financial Nigeria Magazine - - Contents - NINA L. KHRUSHCHEVA

From the mil­i­tary jun­tas that ruled Ar­gentina and Chile in the 1970s and 1980s to Joseph Stalin’s iron-fisted regime in the Soviet Union, dic­ta­tor­ships have a long his­tory of mak­ing their de­trac­tors “dis­ap­pear.” To­day, this sin­is­ter prac­tice seems to be mak­ing a comeback.

Un­der the mil­i­tary regimes in Chile or Ar­gentina, a per­son might be tossed into the sea from a he­li­copter, never to be found. They might be killed and then burned be­yond recog­ni­tion or coated in lime, to ac­cel­er­ate de­com­po­si­tion, and buried in an un­marked grave.

In Stalin’s Soviet Union, some­one could be picked up and taken to the Lubyanka (the KGB head­quar­ters) or some other night­mar­ish fa­cil­ity at any mo­ment. Dur­ing the purges of the 1930s and later, mem­bers of the Com­mu­nist Party were par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble, and mil­lions of Soviet cit­i­zens dis­ap­peared for­ever in prisons or the gu­lag.

To­day, mod­ern au­thor­i­tar­i­ans are re­viv­ing such be­hav­iour, sud­denly and covertly snatch­ing peo­ple, in­clud­ing well­known fig­ures and high-rank­ing of­fi­cials, to be de­tained or worse. In many cases, the “van­ished” do even­tu­ally resur­face, but with an ap­par­ently trans­formed per­spec­tive on their past work or the gov­ern­ment that de­tained them. Here, China and Saudi Ara­bia stand out – though they are by no means alone – for or­ches­trat­ing a se­ries of in­creas­ingly brazen ab­duc­tions or van­ish­ings of their de­trac­tors.

China was be­hind last month’s dis­ap­pear­ance of In­ter­pol Pres­i­dent Meng Hong­wei on a trip from France, where In­ter­pol is based, to Bei­jing, where he also served as vice min­is­ter of pub­lic se­cu­rity. Meng’s ab­duc­tion was par­tic­u­larly shock­ing, be­cause many Chi­nese trum­peted his 2016 ap­point­ment to In­ter­pol’s high­est post – which made him the first Chi­nese cit­i­zen to lead a ma­jor global in­sti­tu­tion – as a sign that the coun­try had fi­nally ar­rived at the top tier of the in­ter­na­tional or­der.

Yet Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping was will­ing sim­ply to throw away that pub­lic re­la­tions vic­tory. Even­tu­ally, it was an­nounced that Meng had been de­tained and was be­ing in­ves­ti­gated for bribery. The de­ci­sion, jus­ti­fied as part of China’s on­go­ing anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign – an en­deav­our that crit­ics say is a cover for elim­i­nat­ing po­lit­i­cal fig­ures dis­loyal to Xi – re­vealed an ut­ter lack of re­gard, or even con­tempt, for world opin­ion.

In fact, Xi is some­thing of a se­rial kid­nap­per. Since he came to power in 2012, all sorts of peo­ple – from small-scale book pub­lish­ers in Hong Kong (in­clud­ing some hold­ers of non-Chi­nese cit­i­zen­ship) to Chi­nese busi­ness lead­ers – have been covertly kid­napped and re­turned to China. Af­ter a long pe­riod of si­lence and seclu­sion, they emerged to re­nounce their past work.

That is what hap­pened to Fan Bing­bing, China’s big­gest movie star, who dis­ap­peared last July, when her pre­vi­ously very ac­tive ac­count on the Sina Weibo so­cial me­dia plat­form (China’s an­swer to Twit­ter) sud­denly went silent. No one knew what

hap­pened, but it was as­sumed that the gov­ern­ment had some­thing to do with it, and busi­nesses with which she had spokesper­son deals cut ties with her.

Fi­nally, Fan resur­faced ear­lier this month (Oc­to­ber), is­su­ing a grov­el­ling apol­ogy for hav­ing evaded taxes, for which she will now face mas­sive fines. Tellingly, her state­ment in­cluded plenty of praise for the Com­mu­nist Party of China, which she cred­ited for her suc­cess as an ac­tress. It was all de­press­ingly fa­mil­iar, re­call­ing as it did the pa­thetic con­fes­sions of Niko­lai Bukharin, the edi­tor of the Com­mu­nist Party news­pa­per Pravda, and oth­ers dur­ing Stalin’s purges.

Saudi Ara­bia has also ex­e­cuted a se­ries of high-pro­file, po­lit­i­cally-mo­ti­vated kid­nap­pings. Last year, Saudi Ara­bia’s Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man or­dered the de­ten­tion of Le­banese Prime Min­is­ter Saad Hariri, who was on an of­fi­cial visit to Riyadh. Hariri was iso­lated even from his body­guards and forced to re­sign. Weeks later, and ev­i­dently en­light­ened to his cap­tors’ sat­is­fac­tion, he was per­mit­ted to re­turn to Lebanon and re­sume his role as its elected leader.

Then, last week (early Oc­to­ber), Ja­mal Khashoggi, an ex­iled Saudi jour­nal­ist, van­ished af­ter en­ter­ing Saudi Ara­bia’s con­sulate in Is­tan­bul to ob­tain a doc­u­ment con­firm­ing his di­vorce, so that he could marry a Turk­ish wo­man the next day. His fi­ancée waited at the con­sulate’s en­trance; he never re-emerged.

Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance is fur­ther ev­i­dence of how lit­tle re­gard to­day’s au­thor­i­tar­i­ans have for na­tional bor­ders when it comes to si­lenc­ing their de­trac­tors. Pre­cisely what hap­pened to Khashoggi is still un­known, but Turkey’s gov­ern­ment, led by Pres­i­dent Re­cep Tayyip Er­doğan, has in­sisted that he was killed while in the con­sulate.

Ac­cord­ing to the Turk­ish au­thor­i­ties, two teams, to­talling 15 peo­ple, flew from Riyadh to Is­tan­bul on the day of Khashoggi’s ap­point­ment and left within hours. This, too, is grimly fa­mil­iar to Rus­sians: Stalin also had spe­cial as­sas­si­na­tion teams, one of which car­ried out the mur­der in Mex­ico of his arch­en­emy, Leon Trot­sky. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the Saudis have de­nied any wrong­do­ing. Khashoggi, they claim, left the con­sulate.

Rus­sia’s own ex­pe­ri­ence with gov­ern­ment-or­ches­trated dis­ap­pear­ances is not lim­ited to the past. Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s regime has also been known to tar­get de­trac­tors for elim­i­na­tion on for­eign soil, as al­legedly hap­pened with the nerve-agent at­tack on the for­mer Rus­sian spy Sergei Skri­pal and his daugh­ter Yu­lia in the United King­dom in March.

The ques­tion is whether au­to­crats’ con­tempt for bor­ders or sovereignty in si­lenc­ing op­po­nents is worth the cost. In the ma­jor­ity of the Western world, Putin is re­garded as an out­cast, Xi is flirt­ing with a sim­i­lar loss of cred­i­bil­ity, and Prince Mo­hammed’s rep­u­ta­tion as a re­former has been se­verely dam­aged, per­haps be­yond re­pair. All of them may soon face a re­al­iza­tion like that of Joseph Fouché, Napoleon’s po­lice chief, af­ter the ab­duc­tion and sham trial of the Duke of Enghien: “It was worse than a crime; it was a mis­take.”

To­day, mod­ern au­thor­i­tar­i­ans are re­viv­ing such be­hav­iour, sud­denly and covertly snatch­ing peo­ple, in­clud­ing well-known fig­ures and high­rank­ing of­fi­cials, to be de­tained or worse.

Nina Khrushcheva

Mur­dered Saudi jour­nal­ist, Ja­mal Khashoggi

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