Uncowed by Khashoggi killing, exiles rise up against authoritarians

If those responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi one year ago today hoped to silence dissent abroad, they have failed. Perhaps more than at any time in history, exiles across the world are agitating against authoritarian regimes back home. 

In Egypt, last month’s surprise protests were inspired by exiled military construction contractor Mohamed Ali, who posted a series of videos online accusing Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of corruption, waste and hypocrisy. 

In the Guardian, Turkish novelist Elif Shafak last month urged artists and writers to stand together against far-right populists like President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and their wave of bigotry against minority communities. Shafak has not returned to Turkey for years out of fear of arrest, and is under investigation by Turkish authorities for her writing. 

Turkish journalist Can Dündar, who faced treason and terrorism-related charges and an assassination attempt in Turkey, rarely leaves his Berlin neighborhood. But last week he helped organise a gathering of Turkish exiles, bringing together key figures to envision the creation of a post-Erdoğan Turkey, which he compared to the post-World War Two reconstruction of Germany.  

Turkish exiles launched this news site, which was highlighted in a June report by leading watchdog group Freedom House as one of the more promising and innovative tools fighting for independent media in Turkey, where about 90 percent of the media is pro-government and some 180 news outlets have shut down since 2016. In addition, Turkey is the world's leading jailer of journalists, according to watchdog group the Committee to Project Journalists, and its government has banned thousands of media and information websites.  

Kurds in Germany continue to support Kurdish movements in Turkey, sometimes crossing the line into illegality, like the two Kurdish publishers shut down by German authorities in February for promoting the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a militant group that Turkey and Germany designate as a terrorist organisation. 

Syrian filmmaker Feras Fayyad’s The Cave, a documentary about an underground hospital treating the wounded in Ghouta, hits movie theatres this month, highlighting the atrocities of President Bashar Assad. 

Last year, Fayyad’s Last Men in Aleppo was nominated for an Oscar, and he is just one of many Syrian exiles who have been spurred to action by the war in their homeland. Waad al-Kateab’s For Sama, in which the Syrian university student films Aleppo under siege as she approaches childbirth, has received stellar reviews since its release last month. 

Young Uighur exiles like Washington D.C.-based Salih Hudayar are launching new organisations to denounce the Chinese government's widely reported mistreatment of the Muslim minority in Xinjiang province. “We’re trying to bring the Uighur movement to the U.S., because the U.S. is where things get done,” the 26-year-old Hudayar told me this year. 

Uighurs in Turkey have mounted a “de facto cultural resistance” in the face of the evisceration of their way of life back home, according to a Foreign Policy article this week, while thousands of Rohingya driven out of Myanmar by violence regularly urge the international community to help their cause. 

The list of activist exiles is nearly endless, and includes the ultimate dissident, the Dalai Lama, who has been publicly fighting for Tibetan independence for more than six decades. 

Two factors are driving this trend today. The first is that our world is home to more displaced people – nearly 71 million, according to the United Nations – than at any time in modern history. 

The second is that online tools have largely made location irrelevant. These days, an activist in New York City, London or Berlin is able to amplify a specific message and communicate in real time with co-conspirators in Hong Kong or Istanbul. 

The flip side, of course, is that technology also enables authoritarians to keep better track of dissidents, and perhaps take action. Since the failed coup, for instance, Turkish authorities have tracked down dozens of suspected members of the Gülen movement in at least 15 countries around the world and forcibly deported them to Turkey.

The Turkish government has also called on Interpol to issue Red Notices against dozens of political dissidents, a clear abuse of the system. The Egyptian government has followed Turkey’s lead and begun taking advantage of Red Notices to go after its own dissidents abroad. 

Iranian spies targeted and threatened dissident exiles in the United Kingdom earlier this year, according to British intelligence agency MI-5. 

In recent months a number of Thai dissidents have been “disappeared” from neighbouring Laos, while several Laotian dissents have gone missing in Thailand, according to Human Rights Watch. 

Then, of course, there is the ultimate punishment for criticism abroad. Khashoggi is not the only example. The Dutch government has said that Iran hired criminal gangs to murder two Iranian dissidents in the Netherlands, in 2015 and 2017. 

President Vladimir Putin’s Russia has over the years gained a reputation for this sort of thing, from the 2006 polonium-210 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko to the failed Skirpal killings last year and the August assassination of a Chechen separatist in broad daylight in central Berlin. 

It’s hard to find more compelling evidence of our shrinking world: wherever you are, you can make a political impact somewhere else. You can also be found and punished. 

But in the wake of the Khashoggi killing, more and more exiles seem to have decided it’s worth the risk. A lucky few are even bringing their tormentors to justice. 

Earlier this year, acting on information provided by exiled Syrian activists, police in France and Germany made arrests that were seen as the first detentions of top Syrian security officials suspected of war crimes. 

© Ahval English

The views expressed in this column are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.