U.S. to sanction foreign officials who pursue ‘transnational repression’

The Biden-Harris administration has announced plans “to push back against governments that reach beyond their borders to threaten and attack journalists and perceived dissidents for exercising their fundamental freedoms”. 

The move comes as the State Department publishes a report that points the finger at Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman for ordering the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Kashoggi.

However, the new legislation, which will amend the Immigration and Nationality Act, goes much further than punishing Saudi officials, but seeks to warn government officials that they could face consequences in the United States if they target dissidents living abroad.

The statement says that “The Khashoggi Ban allows the State Department to impose visa restrictions on individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, are believed to have been directly engaged in serious, extraterritorial counter-dissident activities, including those that suppress, harass, surveil, threaten, or harm journalists, activists, or other persons perceived to be dissidents for their work”.

Nate Shenkkan, Director of Research Strategy at Freedom House, noted on Twitter that the announcement stopped short of sanctioning Mohammed bin Salman directly for Kashoggi’s murder. But he said that the U.S. government “is making a point of addressing extraterritorial targeting of dissidents and journalists''.

 

Freedom House has recently published a report on the extent of transnational repression. The report’s case study on Turkey looks at how Turkish organisations abroad, such as Turkish biker gangs in Germany, the Religious Affairs Directorate, and also extraordinary renditions of suspected Gulenists. 

Although the new law doesn’t go as far as some would like in personally sanctioning Mohammed bin Salman for the murder of Kashoggi, the intention of the move could be to put down a marker and warn officials of other countries not to harass or threaten exiled dissidents. This could end up affecting Turkish officials who target journalists in exile such as Can Dündar, who has been called a terrorist by President Erdogan, a traitor by other officials, and regularly receives threats in Germany from people presumably inspired by the words of government representatives.

I asked Turkey expert Howard Eissenstat if he thought the new law was likely to be used against Turkish officials, and he said that “It is a ban on visas to said officials, as I understand it. Whether it will be used against TR? I suspect that depends on how TR-US relations develop”.

So perhaps this move by the Biden administration is intended to send a signal that they have means at their disposal to use against officials of foreign estates who attempt to threaten dissidents abroad. This is probably not specifically aimed at Turkey, but it may be that the announcement will make some Turkish officials more cautious about calling exiled journalists, traitors.

Whether the U.S. State Department will actually make use of this legislation is another thing. Biden will probably not want to sour the relationship with Turkey too much too soon, but this may still be seen as a diplomatic warning to the Turkish government that its freedom to project power, which seemed to expand significantly under the Trump administration, may no longer be tolerated.