Dic­ta­tors only get­ting bolder in their at­tempt to si­lence crit­ics.

Bangkok Post - - SUNDAY FORUM - By Sarah El Deeb

The dis­ap­pear­ance of a promi­nent Saudi jour­nal­ist raises a dark ques­tion for any­one who dares crit­i­cise gov­ern­ments or speak out against those in power: Will the world have their back? Dic­ta­tors and au­to­crats have al­ways sought to si­lence dis­senters, even ones that flee abroad to es­cape their grasp. They seem to only get bolder in turn­ing to their play­book of de­ten­tion, threats and killings.

That may in part be be­cause, de­spite decades of talk of hu­man rights in in­ter­na­tional cir­cles, vi­o­la­tions get only muted re­proaches.

In the United States, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion avoids stren­u­ous crit­i­cism of hu­man rights abuses by al­lies, like Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt, Is­rael and the Philip­pines, or lead­ers it seeks to cul­ti­vate ties with, like Rus­sia, China and North Korea.

Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s de­nun­ci­a­tions of “glob­al­ism’’ and tough stance against the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court also have sig­nalled that Wash­ing­ton has lit­tle in­ter­est in in­ter­na­tional en­force­ment against vi­o­la­tors of hu­man rights. Western coun­tries have turned in­wards, buf­feted by ris­ing xeno­pho­bic forces — and au­to­crats have ei­ther ben­e­fited from the vac­uum or re­ceived out­right sup­port.

So when Turk­ish of­fi­cials said they be­lieved Saudi jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi had been killed last week af­ter dis­ap­pear­ing dur­ing a visit to his coun­try’s con­sulate in Istanbul, there was good rea­son to won­der whether there would be se­ri­ous reper­cus­sions.

So too when China de­tained the now for­mer In­ter­pol chief af­ter cap­tur­ing him midair — the lat­est Chi­nese fig­ure to van­ish only to ap­pear in court, ac­cused of cor­rup­tion.

So too when Rus­sia was ac­cused of poi­son­ing an ex-spy in Bri­tain.

Of­ten eco­nomic and diplo­matic in­ter­ests lead coun­tries to over­look killings, even of their own cit­i­zens.

In one of the most chill­ing re­cent cases, an Ital­ian post­grad­u­ate stu­dent, Gi­ulio Re­geni, was found dumped on the side of a road out­side the Egyp­tian cap­i­tal, Cairo, his body mu­ti­lated and his bones bro­ken. Sus­pi­cion in Italy im­me­di­ately fell on Egypt’s se­cu­rity forces, no­to­ri­ous for their use of tor­ture. But nearly three years later, no one has been blamed, and while Italy says it con­tin­ues to in­ves­ti­gate, it has forged ahead with ties with Egypt, par­tic­u­larly with the de­vel­op­ment of a nat­u­ral gas field off Egypt’s coast by Italy’s largest en­ergy com­pany, ENI.

Sara Kayyali, a researcher on Syria for Hu­man Rights Watch, said Khashoggi’s dis­ap­pear­ance “is not just sad, it is ter­ri­fy­ing.

“We are all taken aback by the lack of con­dem­na­tion by any of our tra­di­tional al­lies for the acts that we are see­ing hap­pen, most re­cently with Ja­mal’s case. I think it is a very chal­leng­ing time for all of us and our tra­di­tional al­lies are not around,’’ she said. “It looks like it is the age of im­punity, but we won’t let it go.’’


Af­ter the wave of pro-democ­racy protests that shook the Arab world in 2011 came the back­lash — bru­tal crack­downs. As mil­lions from Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Libya left their home coun­tries, au­to­crats have tracked the vo­cal crit­ics among them.

The Khashoggi dis­ap­pear­ance has shaken the large com­mu­nity of Arab ex­iles who found rel­a­tive safety in Turkey, said an Egyp­tian dis­si­dent who fled his coun­try af­ter the 2013 mas­sacre. He had met Khashoggi only days ear­lier. He said he is con­sid­er­ing where to go next, adding that his wife just got a job in Saudi Ara­bia, but he’s afraid to go there. He spoke on con­di­tion of anonymity, fear­ing for his safety.

“It is a whole new level of dan­ger­ous,’’ he said. It harkens back to the days when Libya’s Moam­mar Gad­hafi called his op­po­nents in di­as­pora “stray dogs’’ and sent death squads to shoot them down in Euro­pean cap­i­tals.


Rus­sia has been ac­cused of go­ing af­ter turncoat spies with­out pay­ing much at­ten­tion to bor­ders and in­ter­na­tional norms.

In 2006, for­mer Rus­sian se­cu­rity of­fi­cer Alexan­der Litvi­nenko, who fled to Bri­tain and be­came a harsh critic of Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, died af­ter drink­ing tea laced with ra­dioac­tive polo­nium-210 in Lon­don. In­ves­ti­ga­tions con­cluded that Rus­sia’s se­cu­rity ser­vice killed him, likely on Putin’s or­ders. The Rus­sian gov­ern­ment has de­nied any re­spon­si­bil­ity.

In March, for­mer Rus­sian spy Sergei Skri­pal and his daugh­ter were found un­con­scious in the English city of Sal­is­bury af­ter be­ing ex­posed to a Soviet-de­signed nerve agent known as Novi­chok. They spent weeks in crit­i­cal con­di­tion but sur­vived. Months later, a civil­ian died af­ter be­ing ac­ci­den­tally ex­posed to the poi­son.

Bri­tish of­fi­cials an­nounced charges in ab­sen­tia against two Rus­sian agents. The Bri­tish gov­ern­ment says it has ev­i­dence the men work for the Rus­sian mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence agency. Moscow de­nies any role in the poi­son­ing. In re­tal­i­a­tion, Bri­tain, Euro­pean Union coun­tries and the United States ex­pelled dozens of Rus­sian diplo­mats, Bri­tain put greater scru­tiny on Rus­sian funds, and Wash­ing­ton im­posed lim­ited fi­nan­cial sanc­tions. Still, Mr Trump was reluc­tant to speak out strongly against the at­tack.


China’s Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping has in­creas­ingly de­fied for­eign gov­ern­ments and in­ter­na­tional rights groups, bol­stered by his coun­try’s global eco­nomic clout, mil­i­tary power and diplo­matic weight. That’s raised con­cerns over the fate of civic so­ci­ety within the coun­try, as well as the risks of ap­point­ing Chi­nese of­fi­cials to po­si­tions in in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions.

Mr Xi has waged a broad anti-cor­rup­tion cam­paign that has en­snared nu­mer­ous po­lit­i­cal foes — in­clud­ing among Chi­nese com­mu­ni­ties out­side the coun­try. The most re­cent to fall afoul is In­ter­pol’s pres­i­dent, Meng Hong­wei, who was taken into cus­tody upon ar­riv­ing in Bei­jing late last month.


A ten­u­ous place in the rul­ing dy­nasty is no pro­tec­tion: wit­ness one of the most brazen in­stances of as­sas­si­na­tion in re­cent mem­ory, when North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s es­tranged half-brother Kim Jong Nam died in 2017 at an air­port in Malaysia in an at­tack that au­thor­i­ties said used VX nerve agent.

In March, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion re­ferred to it only in­di­rectly, hedg­ing per­haps with an eye to fu­ture diplo­macy. Wash­ing­ton only de­ter­mined that Py­ongyang used chem­i­cal weapons, an ap­par­ent ref­er­ence to the killing with­out go­ing into any fur­ther de­tail.

Is­rael and the Pales­tini­ans have a history of as­sas­si­na­tions. Is­rael’s Mos­sad killed sev­eral top PLO and Ha­mas lead­ers in the Arab world and Gaza, while a Pales­tinian splin­ter group at­tempted and failed to kill the Is­raeli am­bas­sador to the United King­dom in 1982. Pales­tinian mil­i­tants as­sas­si­nated Is­rael’s tourism min­is­ter in 2001. Tehran has blamed Is­rael for a series of slay­ings of top Ira­nian nu­clear sci­en­tists ear­lier this decade.

Dur­ing the post-9/11 “war on ter­ror” un­der Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W Bush, the CIA pro­gramme of “ex­tra­or­di­nary ren­di­tion’’ and tor­ture of sus­pects to se­cret “black sites’’ was a key US strat­egy in neu­tral­is­ing the en­emy. More than 50 coun­tries par­tic­i­pated with some like Poland and Lithua­nia al­low­ing the jails to be run on their ter­ri­tory.

And of course, the United States car­ried out the most note­wor­thy as­sas­si­na­tion of this cen­tury when Navy SEALs un­der Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s di­rec­tion tracked down Osama bin Laden in Pak­istan and killed him in 2011. “It may take time, but we have long me­mories, and our reach has no lim­its,’’ Mr Obama said in his last State of the Union ad­dress.

STILL NO AN­SWERS: The fam­ily of Gi­ulio Re­geni fol­lows his cof­fin dur­ing the funeral ser­vice in Fi­u­mi­cello, North­ern Italy. Re­geni’s body was found dumped out­side Cairo.

MYS­TERY DIS­AP­PEAR­ANCE: Saudi jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi in Manama, Bahrain.

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