The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Exile used to be safe. Now dictators are hunting down their enemies abroad.

Hotel Rwanda hero Paul Rusesabagina walks handcuffed with guards to a court hearing in Kigali, Rwanda, on Sept. 25. (Eugene Uwimana/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

This week, a Rwandan court sentenced Paul Rusesabagina, whose heroic role during the Rwandan genocide was dramatized in the movie “Hotel Rwanda,” to a 25-year prison sentence after an illegitimate show trial. Officially, his crime was terrorism, but his real offense was his outspokenness. He dared to criticize Rwanda’s dictator, President Paul Kagame.

Rusesabagina has spent much of his post-genocide life in exile, living first as a taxi driver in Belgium, and then moving to the United States after Rwandans started harassing him and his family in Brussels. But last year, Rwandan agents organized an elaborate plot to kidnap him and bring him back to the country. The Rwandan regime even admitted that it paid for a private jet that Rusesabagina thought was bringing him to give a speech in Burundi, but instead landed in Kigali. His welcome party put him in handcuffs and marched him to a jail cell.

“We get to speak to my father once a week for five minutes, and this is a big, big privilege,” says Anaise Kanimba, Rusesabagina’s daughter.

Rusesabagina’s abduction is just the latest in a series of attacks targeting critics of authoritarian regimes who have fled into exile. In June, Belarus forced an airliner to land under false pretenses so that it could arrest a dissident who was on board. Last year, Germany formally accused Russia of murdering an opponent of President Vladimir Putin’s regime in a Berlin park in 2019; earlier this week, British police announced criminal charges against a Russian security official accused of helping stage an attack on Sergei Skripal in 2018. The Post’s own contributors offer a sample of the trend. Saudi agents killed Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, while the Iranians have tried to kidnap Masih Alinejad.

Many more dissidents are at risk. Unless Western leaders push back, attacks will increase, and fewer people will feel safe enough to speak out against awful regimes. The dictators will have won.

Throughout human history, exile has acted like a safety valve, a way for governments to get rid of people without killing them. In the past, most dissidents were able to view their adopted countries as places of refuge. Out of sight meant out of mind.

All that has changed. Globalized communications and social media enable dissidents to speak to like-minded supporters back home, amplifying the threat they pose to the regimes they are criticizing. In response, authoritarians from Turkey to Thailand are flexing their repressive muscle, showing that they can kidnap, capture and even kill their enemies anywhere in the world.

According to a report this year by Freedom House, 31 different governments are targeting regime opponents across borders. In recent years, Freedom House analysts have tracked 608 separate cases of what they call “transnational repression.” Nowhere is safe. Dissidents have been targeted while living in 79 host countries, including the United States.

Hunting down their opponents is a rational strategy for these regimes. Prominent critics in exile have the power to inspire protests, even topple governments. Silencing them is therefore a top priority for authoritarian leaders. Dictators weigh that priority against the geopolitical costs of kidnapping or murdering their opponents. And at the moment, the scales tilt heavily toward eliminating enemies no matter where they live.

Khashoggi’s murder was a watershed moment in this calculation. It wasn’t just the Saudi regime that discovered it could get away with brazenly assassinating a journalist who was residing in the United States. The rest of the world’s dictators took notice too. They learned a grotesque lesson: Kill a dissident and get a slap on the wrist.

Rwanda has followed suit. After a series of grisly murders were carried out by regime henchman, the aid money kept flowing. Rusesabagina was kidnapped in 2020. The World Bank increased its loans to Rwanda for 2021. And while the United States decreased its assistance slightly, American taxpayers are still spending $80 million this year to help fund a regime that has a track record of kidnapping and murdering its opponents. What kind of message does that send?

“We’re giving countries free rein to pursue people around the world,” Isabel Linzer of Freedom House recently told me. “We see countries getting away with these multi-decade campaigns of transnational repression.”

The Biden administration is convening a summit of democracies later this year, a laudable effort to show the world that his administration is serious about stemming a rising authoritarian tide. The White House should seize the opportunity to send a message. Regimes that hunt, kidnap and murder their opponents should not enjoy impunity.

The United States can’t keep Rwandans in Rwanda safe, nor can it guarantee freedom of expression for Belarusians in Belarus. But democratic governments should provide extensive protection to dissidents in exile who speak out. And that protection must come with a credible threat: Regimes that continue to target pro-democracy exiles will pay a price.

In the meantime, people like Rusesabagina will continue to unjustly languish in a dank prison cell — leaving his daughter, Kanimba, to wait for five minutes of joy each week when she learns that her father is still alive.

“I think my biggest fear today,” she says, “is not to get a phone call on Friday.”