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How Democratic Govts Become Complicit in Transnational Repression: Another Rwanda-US Case

Paul Rusesabagina, the real-life hero of Hollywood’s Hotel Rwanda and a vocal critic of Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, was released from prison last month and allowed to return home to the United States, resolving a particularly high-profile case in a growing and disturbing pattern worldwide. The Rwandan government had abducted Rusesabagina in 2020 while he was in transit in Dubai. Once in Rwanda’s capital Kigali, he was convicted on terrorism-related charges and sentenced to life in prison.

His case joined that of Saudi dissident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, gruesomely murdered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018, and preceded that of Belarusian journalist Raman Pratasevich, abducted by Belarus from a deliberately rerouted flight in May 2021. They are among an increasing number of examples of transnational repression — the targeting of exiles and others in diasporas by their home governments outside of the country’s borders.

The case of Leopold Munyakazi, another critic of the Rwandan government who is currently in prison there, has garnered fewer headlines or statements of support from celebrities. But in many ways, it is more emblematic of most cases of transnational repression.

Unlike Rusesabagina, Munyakazi wasn’t clandestinely kidnapped via private jet. He was returned to Rwanda by the U.S. government. Munyakazi’s targeting, which was made possible by interstate cooperation rather than a unilateral violation of sovereignty, illustrates how authoritarians can manipulate democratic governments to perpetrate transnational repression. His case makes clear that to counter this global threat, democracies have to seriously examine their own institutions.

Dangerous Speech

Leopold Munyakazi is a Rwandan linguist and trade union leader who came to the United States to participate in a conference on French literature in Atlanta in 2004. While in the United States, Munyakazi learned that he was allegedly on a list of opponents of the regime , and applied for asylum. While waiting for his claim to asylum to be reviewed, Munyakazi taught French, first at a high school and then at colleges in New Jersey and Maryland. He also became a member of Scholars at Risk, a network set up to protect scholars and defend freedom of speech by arranging temporary academic positions at universities.

As part of that program, in 2006, Munyakazi spoke about academic freedom at the University of Delaware. During his remarks, he made the controversial assertion that the 1994 genocide, in which more than 800,000 people were killed, was best understood not as ethnically driven but as a civil war stemming from long-standing social and class conflict. According to a news release on the university’s website, he said that, while he had opposed the violence, “It is quite wrong to say that genocide was committed by Hutus.”

Shortly afterward, the Rwandan government issued a warrant for Munyakazi’s arrest that became the basis of two Interpol notices. The government alleged that he had actually participated in the genocide, a charge Munyakazi denied. In parallel to their legal efforts, Rwandan officials also began working with international journalists on a story about Munyakazi, who is Hutu, and showed up at his college to interview colleagues.

These accusations eventually led to Munyakazi’s asylum claim being denied. After a winding process, his appeals exhausted, he was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in 2015 and deported in 2016.

Back in Rwanda, Munyakazi was initially convicted of genocide and sentenced to life in prison but was later cleared of that and other charges after he appealed and more testimony was collected from local witnesses. The only charge that the court upheld was that of “genocide denial”—a vague and politicized accusation that has been abused by the government to punish dissidents and political opponents. Nearly five years on, Munyakazi remains in prison.

A few months ago, the Organized Crime and Corruption Project (OCCRP) published an investigation into how Rwanda’s government has pursued its critics in the United States. The article referenced Munyakazi’s case. According to OCCRP, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) issued a classified report in 2015 warning that the Rwandan government “was using its intelligence services to spread disinformation in the United States about Rwandan asylum seekers and opposition members.” The FBI report described efforts to manipulate the U.S. immigration system and Interpol notices and stated that ICE’s investigation into Munyakazi was “almost certainly” compromised by a Rwandan intelligence agent. Nevertheless, Munyakazi was returned to Rwanda after this classified report was completed.

Manipulating Democracies

Freedom House rates Rwanda as Not Free because political opponents are repressed, media is silenced, government surveillance is rampant, protests are routinely and violently dispersed by police, and the judiciary lacks independence. President Paul Kagame has been in power since 2003, when he won an election marked by the disappearances of opposition figures and by ballot-stuffing. His main opponent, Faustin Twagiramungu, fled the country immediately after the election and has remained abroad ever since. Kagame has won re-election three times, and in 2015 the Rwandan constitution was amended to allow him to potentially remain in power until 2034.

In addition to the repressive domestic environment, Rwanda is also among the top 10 perpetrators of transnational repression in the world. The government has used all 12 of the physical and nonphysical tactics we at Freedom House track, including assassinations, assaults, renditions, Interpol abuse, mobility controls, digital threats, coercion of family members, and spyware to target people in at least 11 countries.

Munyakazi’s case illustrates an underexamined side of transnational repression: the ability of authoritarian regimes to manipulate the immigration system of a democratic country, where information provided by foreign governments can play a powerful role in determining whether a person’s case receives fair treatment. This problem stems not only from the interconnectedness of the international system but also from the inherent asymmetry of an open society trying to evaluate information provided by a closed one, which itself has a stake in the outcome.

In Freedom House’s transnational repression database, which spans 2014 through 2022, nearly 40 percent of cases involve some level of cooperation between the origin and host governments. Though most of this cooperation happens between authoritarian governments, there is also a clear pattern of cases of democratic governments assisting in the return of exiled activists and members of vulnerable diasporas.

Last year, for example, Serbia handed over a dissident to Bahraini officials on a tarmac in Belgrade, ignoring an injunction against his return issued by the European Court of Human Rights. Austria allowed the extradition of an activist back to Tajikistan in 2020. Later, Austria’s Supreme Court invalidated the extradition, but the man had already been sentenced to 20 years in prison. In 2018, Germany deported a Uyghur man to China despite his open asylum application. He is suspected of disappearing into the vast camp system in Xinjiang.

Looking Within

In order to effectively combat the reach of autocrats, the United States must build resiliency to the abuse and manipulation of its own institutions. At a minimum, this requires three things: that government agencies collect information detailing the threat posed by authoritarians to people living in the United States, that this information is effectively shared between law enforcement and immigration officials, and that people who may be targeted by transnational repression are not made more vulnerable simply by having to traverse the overburdened immigration system.

One way to accomplish this is by properly equipping immigration authorities with pertinent information about practices that some countries use to target their nationals living abroad. In the United Kingdom, for example, the Home Office prepares “country policy and information notes” to help assess claims for asylum. The reports on China and Turkey note that both governments target specific groups, including Uyghurs and suspected members of the Gülen movement, abroad. The Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs compiles similar reports that also note that countries like China monitor and intimidate members of targeted diaspora.

The U.S. Department of State already produces annual reports on human rights practices that document transnational repression. The 2022 report on Rwanda notes that “the country is credibly alleged to have killed or kidnapped persons, or used violence or threats of violence against individuals in other countries, for purposes of politically motivated reprisal.” A Counterintelligence Bulletin issued by the FBI in January 2022 states that “foreign government officials are almost certainly conducting transnational repression activities targeting US-based dissidents, political opponents and religious or ethnic minority diaspora members” and lists Rwanda among perpetrator governments, alongside China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia.

Clearly, verified information on transnational repression exists in the United States. The next step is to make sure this information is shared effectively among federal, state, and local officials, especially those involved in the immigration process.

Information-sharing requires strategic coordination among different agencies and institutions, a process complicated by America’s highly federalized system, in which local police, federal law enforcement, and the Department of Homeland Security do not have clearly established lines of communication with the Department of State or Department of Justice devoted to the domestic threat posed by authoritarian governments.

Complicating the picture further, the huge backlog of cases and extended wait times that characterize the U.S. immigration system exacerbates existing vulnerabilities of people who can be targeted by foreign states.  According to data compiled by the University of Syracuse, as of the end of last year, there were 1.6 million people waiting for an asylum hearing by an Immigration Court (housed in the Department of Justice) or by Citizenship and Immigration Services (housed in the Department of Homeland Security). While wait times vary, it can take as long as 4.3 years between when an asylum case is filed with an Immigration Court and when a hearing takes place. A recent study produced by the Uyghur Human Rights Project found that some Uyghurs – a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority group at high risk of being targeted for transnational repression by the Chinese government — in the United States are waiting as long as eight years for their asylum claims to be heard.

Without the security of permanent immigration status, individuals awaiting a decision on their asylum claim are in constant jeopardy of being targeted with transnational repression. Speaking out the way that Munyakazi did can attract overt targeting via Interpol notices, but because the U.S. immigration system relies on information from origin states for assessing parts of asylum claims — including by requesting official documents — authoritarian governments also have covert influence on individual applications. The longer their asylum claims remain in limbo, the longer people’s voices are silenced, and the longer they live in danger of being targeted.

Transnational repression is both a global and a local problem that brings authoritarianism to the doorstep of democracies. Combatting it requires measures to monitor physical attacks on exiles and dissidents living in the United States and elsewhere. It also requires shoring up U.S. and other countries’ democratic institutions against the influence of foreign governments that abuse international cooperation and use information-sharing to silence the voices of their critics, even long after they have sought refuge in other parts of the world.

IMAGE: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Rwandan President Paul Kagame at the Presidents Office in Urugwiro Village in Kigali, Rwanda, on August 11, 2022. (Photo by ANDREW HARNIK/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

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