Kidnap, skyjack, and murder: How Belarus and other repressive regimes hunt down dissident exiles

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“Transnational repression” has become “a normal and institutionalized practice for dozens of countries that seek to control their citizens abroad,” according to Freedom House.

The arrest of a dissident Belarusian journalist after a dramatic forced landing in Minsk is the latest incident in an alarming trend of “transnational repression” against exiles, according to human rights advocates.

“What appear to be isolated incidents when viewed separately — an assassination here, a kidnapping there — in fact form a constant threat across the world,” said human rights watchdog group Freedom House in a report released earlier this year.

The repressive actions, the organization said, have become normalized. “Transnational repression is no longer an exceptional tool,” according to the report, “but a normal and institutionalized practice for dozens of countries that seek to control their citizens

The latest incident involves 26-year-old Belarusian journalist Roman Protasevich, who was arrested on Sunday after being pulled off a civilian Irish airliner during an emergency stop in Belarus. 

Protasevich was aboard the Ryanair plane flying from Athens to Vilnius. While the plane transited Belarusian air space, local ground controllers told pilots that a bomb was reported on the plane, and that it must land in Minsk. To underscore the order, Belarusian authorities dispatched a Soviet-designed MiG-29 fighter jet to escort the unarmed and much slower Irish plane. On the ground, no bomb was found — and the journalist was arrested. 

The move brought swift condemnation from Washington, D.C. 

“This shocking act perpetrated by the Lukashenka regime endangered the lives of more than 120 passengers, including U.S. citizens,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement demanding that Protasevich be released. “Initial reports suggesting the involvement of the Belarusian security services and the use of Belarusian military aircraft to escort the plane are deeply concerning and require full investigation.”

A cursory look, though, would show that the move by Belarus was an example of an increasingly common practice, observers noted. 

Over the past decades, authoritarianism has been on the rise, according to Stanford Law School’s Allen Weiner, who cautioned that one breach of international protocol would follow another. “The concern is that if those rules are not abided by or there don’t appear to be costs for disregarding those rules, then other people will decide, well, maybe I will find it to be convenient to violate the rules,” he said in an interview.

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