WASHINGTON – To arrest an exiled critic, Belarus did something that no other government had previously done: it used a fabricated bomb threat and a military jet to force a civilian plane in its airspace to land in the capital, Minsk.
On board the flight from Greece to Lithuania was 26-year-old Raman Pratasevich, an activist and blogger. When the plane landed, he was taken into custody.
Pratasevich was the editor-in-chief of the popular Telegram channel Nexta, which serves as a powerful medium for Belarus’s opposition voices. Pratasevich was wanted in Belarus, where he was on a list of terror suspects and accused of inciting unrest during last year’s protests over the disputed presidential election.
Since his arrest, Pratasevich has appeared on state television to give statements widely seen as being made under duress. His family and rights groups pointed to marks and bruising visible in the videos, which they say show he is being beaten and abused.
The incident has caused a global outcry, with Western governments threatening to sanction key sectors of the Belarus economy and the European Union banning Belarusian planes from Europe’s airspace.
While extreme, the Belarus case is not an isolated incident. Authoritarian governments continue finding ways to abduct or even kill critics, journalists, activists and opposition figures living in exile.
The most egregious was the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Earlier this year, the administration of President Joe Biden declassified an intelligence report that concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman approved the operation in Turkey “to capture or kill [the] Saudi journalist.”
Nate Schenkkan, director of research strategy and co-author of the Freedom House report “Out of Sight, Not Out of Reach,” says governments going after critics beyond their jurisdictions are in clear violation of international law.
The journalist’s daughter told VOA he is forced to do labor and because of COVID-19 restrictions, the authorities have not let family members and friends visit him for months.
“My dad is required to work from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. with an hour lunch break, five days a week. His work involves crafting and weaving baskets,” Truong said.
Others in exile are lured from their country of exile with incentives, like Sharofiddin Gadoev, a political activist from Tajikistan, who had political asylum in the Netherlands.
Gadoev said that in 2019, he was invited to Moscow to meet a high-level official.
It was a trap. “Instead of the meeting I was kidnapped, beaten and forcibly sent to Tajikistan,” he said.
“When I was detained in the territory of the Russian Federation, there was not a procedure and extradition,” he told VOA by email. “It was an abduction.”
He credits his freedom to efforts from governments in Europe and the United States, as well as international rights groups.
In some cases, authorities claim threats to national security to secure extraditions.
In March 2018, Turkish intelligence captured six Turkish nationals living in Kosovo. They were brought back to their home country to face terrorism charges over their alleged affiliation to a grassroots movement led by U.S.-based Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, listed as a terrorist by Turkey. Gulen is accused of masterminding the 2016 failed attempted coup—a charge he denies.
“Wherever they may go, we will wrap them up and bring them here,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the operation.
Schenkkan, of Freedom House, said Kosovo cooperated with Turkey by revoking residence permits “on national security grounds.”
“There’s kind of a fictional legal process. I say fictional because these people were given no opportunities to see the basis on which their residency was being revoked. They were given no access to counsel or to lawyers to help contest it,” he added.
Kosovo’s prime minister later dismissed the country’s interior minister and secret service head for not briefing him about the arrests, Reuters reported in 2018.
More recently, Turkish state media published photos showing Gulen’s nephew, Selahaddin Gulen, in handcuffs after he was forcibly repatriated from an unnamed foreign country.
Those forced to return often face imprisonment or even death.
Dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam had political asylum in France, where he ran Amad News, a popular Telegram news channel. Iran said the website had incited widespread protests in 2017 and 2018.
In 2019, Zam was lured to Iraq with the promise of a high-profile interview. But Iranian agents abducted him, and authorities brought multiple charges against the journalist, including working with foreign intelligence, and spreading fake news. He was executed in December.
Zam’s case was cited in a bipartisan resolution by U.S. lawmakers last month that said the journalist was charged with “corruption on Earth” for his reporting.
In recognition of growing threats to press freedom worldwide the resolution—introduced by Senators Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, and Bob Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey—seeks to maintain “the centrality of an independent press to the health of democracy and reaffirms freedom of the press as a priority of the United States in promoting democracy, human rights, and good governance.”
Source: Voice of America