Recently a bombshell report from Politico emerged showing that the head of Egypt’s notorious General Intelligence Services (GIS), Abbas Kamel, had demanded to know why Egyptian American human rights defender Mohamed Soltan was living free in Virginia instead of locked up behind American bars.
Soltan, who now heads the Freedom Initiative, a non-profit that advocates on behalf of political prisoners, was wrongfully detained in Egypt and tortured or otherwise ill-treated from 2013 until the Obama administration secured his release in 2015. He was swept up in a campaign of unlawful killings and mass arrests following the ousting of former president Mohamed Morsi which brought to power the current president Abdel Fattah El Sisi, a leader who has presided over unprecedented crackdowns on human rights.
During my time as UN Special Rapporteur and now as Amnesty International’s Secretary General, I’ve seen leaders who will stop at nothing to silence those who expose their abuses, at home but now ever-increasingly abroad. Today, their reach knows no bounds, borders, or frontiers.
Kamel, standing in Washington DC armed with a document alleging that the US had agreed to detain Soltan in a US prison for the rest of his life, demonstrates a brazen attempt to enlist the support of U.S. officials in doing Egypt’s dirty work on U.S. soil. It’s disturbing that on a trip to talk about the brewing conflict with Ethiopia over water security – a genuine crisis – he used his limited time on this.
Though the requests for Soltan’s detention were immediately rejected by US officials, Egypt’s hubris in believing it could threaten and intimidate rights defenders anywhere in the world is not unwarranted—after all, it has learned from a close friend and neighbor in Saudi Arabia. Saudi operatives brutally murdered and dismembered journalist and Virginia resident Jamal Khashoggi in an Istanbul consulate in October 2018. In January 2021, a declassified report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) pinned culpability on Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, but the US failed to take actions against him and he has faced no accountability for this horrific act.
The close security and political cooperation between Egypt and the US shouldn’t make the US a potentially unsafe haven for Egyptian exiles. And despite the Saudi government’s continued efforts to target those who have fled its repression, Khaled bin Salman, Mohamed bin Salman’s brother and the deputy minister of defense, enjoyed a top-level visit to Washington just days ago.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia aren’t the only perpetrators. There is evidence of an increase in the number of journalists, human rights defenders or political dissidents seeking safety abroad and yet being targeted by States or non-State actors. They face electronic and other forms of surveillance, threats and intimidation, physical attacks, abductions, and killings. Amnesty International worked with partner organizations to recently expose how the Israeli company NSO Group has been selling malicious spyware to governments across the world that are using it to carry out this exact transnational repression.
These governments’ repressive efforts are harmful not only because of the rights violations that they represent for individuals like Soltan, but also because they have a chilling effect over global civil society. Human rights defenders all over the world have been made aware of the high costs they or their families may pay if they speak out in the face of transnational repression.
This is exactly why the U.S. and other foreign governments must take a zero-tolerance policy toward these transnational abuses. After the declassification of the ODNI report, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced new sanctions for those who engaged in such abuses, known as the “Khashoggi Ban”, which are measures I had advocated for when I was UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary killings. The Khashoggi Ban imposes visa restrictions for “those who suppress, harass, surveil, threaten, or harm journalists, activists, or other persons perceived to be dissidents for their work.” But most crucially, governments that welcome with open arms those who have been involved in multiple human rights violations at home and reward them with lucrative deals or military and security assistance, invite them to exploit these visits to further intimidate and threaten those in exile abroad. This must stop.
That Soltan and other human rights defenders should have to live their lives in exile at all is unconscionable, but then to live in fear of persecution in their place of refuge at the hands of those who have driven them into exile is beyond the pale. The only way to prevent this is attacking the problem at the root. Particularly with close allies, the US must use its leverage to press for tangible improvements in the human rights situation. In the case of Egypt, this should start with securing the release of thousands who are still arbitrarily detained and putting an end to the government’s relentless campaign against civil society.
Standing up to this transnational bullying is not only standing up for rights defenders; it is standing up for the very right to speak and act freely.