Expedience over Justice: Implications of the Fate of the Khashoggi Trial for Activists-in-Exile

Expedience over Justice: Implications of the Fate of the Khashoggi Trial for Activists-in-Exile

On 7 April, a Turkish court ordered that the murder trial of those accused of killing and dismembering Jamal Khashoggi be transferred to Saudi Arabia. This will effectively end the case and put pay to any chance of achieving justice for the Saudi dissident journalist. But what does this mean for the rights and protection of other Activists-in-Exile around the globe?

“Transferring the Khashoggi trial from Turkey to Saudi Arabia would end any possibility of justice for him and would reinforce Saudi authorities’ apparent belief that they can get away with murder,” Human Rights Watch’s Michael Page said in a statement

Turkey’s reasons are transparent. The Turkish economy has been facing a crisis and the war in Ukraine (involving two of Turkey’s largest trading and investing partners as well as neighbours) is exacerbating the pain. Ankara can no longer afford to spurn the potential for investment from Saudi Arabia and its allies.

While diplomatic tensions between the two governments pre-existed the gruesome assassination of Khashoggi by a hit squad in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, on the orders of the Kingdom’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, Erdogan benefitted from the moral high ground in its aftermath. But as circumstances shifted, so too did Turkey’s principles. While once Erdogan had admonished the Trump administration for its weakness on the issue, now Turkey has agreed to pay the price. Yet while Erdogan’s decision means that this latest – and likely final – twist may not be all that surprising, its implications are chilling. 

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The geopolitical calculation is clear.  Russia’s invasion of Ukraine earlier this year has led to international efforts to reinforce relations with Saudi Arabia in the hope that it can boost productivity and provide an alternative to Russian hydrocarbons. Following British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s recent visit to Riyadh, the link to Khashoggi’s murder was highlighted by opposition deputy leader, Angela Rayner who accused him of going on a “begging mission” to a “murderous dictator.”

But the Khashoggi killing was far from an isolated incident. As we have explained in a recent blog for CIPS, the rapid pace of globalization combined with a startling resurgence of authoritarianism had created a dangerous situation for individuals or groups seeking to promote peace and justice, even when – as Khashoggi had – they relocate outside their country of origin. 

We have identified these people as Activists-in-Exile, a distinct and more expansive category than the internationally recognized “Human Rights Defenders” (Khashoggi would undoubtedly have been excluded by this definition). Moreover, while our analysis treads some of the same theoretical ground already explored by scholars of diaspora studies, we find that the uniqueness of this specific category of people does not receive adequate recognition in the existing literature.

Activists-in-Exile are individuals who – as a result of their efforts to improve conditions for themselves and others – have personally endured the experience of ejection (and/or rejection) from their country of origin. Yet while they are thus forced onto the liminal space of the State-centric international system, they are, by necessity, constantly negotiating with States in search of protection and access to rights, and often developing innovative avenues to continue their work. 

To paraphrase the Eagles’ famous song, they can ‘check out of their country, but they can never truly leave’ the grip of their home regimes. 

Typically, they endure precarious lives. They depend on the whims of immigration systems and refugee rules that were never designed to recognize their value or experience as activists. Moreover, because their work often puts them at odds with the governments in their countries of origin, they are more likely to be subject to threats or intimidation – which, as the morbid example of Khashoggi’s assassination demonstrates, can follow them wherever they go. 

In a world built around territorially defined State authority but one where that idea is constantly muddied through ubiquitous globalization, they occupy a unique and contradictory identity and location; to paraphrase the Eagles’ famous song, they can ‘check out of their country, but they can never truly leave’ the grip of their home regimes. 

As Freedom House found in a report last year, the issue – known as “transnational repression” – is becoming a “normal” phenomenon.” Increasingly, authoritarian governments are using similar tools “in more incidents than is typically understood” to suppress their perceived enemies. Examples are wide-ranging but tend to fall into four distinct categories:

  • Direct, physical violence: The high-profile assassinations of Khashoggi or the Kremlin’s attacks on Alexander Litvinenko, Sergei and Yulia Skripal are examples. This can also manifest as low-level thuggery and intimidation.
  • Co-option of other States: as happened in the case against Khashoggi’s assassins, it also often intersects with direct violence where States manipulate other States or organizations (for example, Interpol) to pressure, pursue or abuse exiles on its behalf. 
  • Mobility controls: including passport cancellation and denial of consular services; and
  • Threats from a distance: including online intimidation, surveillance and coercion against activists, their families or those around them. 

This final category is of particular concern for Canada. In a groundbreaking new report, CitizenLab explored the impact of digital transnational repression on activists in Canada who have moved to this country in search of refuge from threats or abuse related to their activism. Despite being in Canada, these activists experienced various forms of abuse online, ranging from reputational damage, erosion of community networks, impacts on their psychosocial health and often resulting in self-censorship. 

Of course, each case is a human tragedy that should be of concern, but there are also potential geopolitical consequences that matter. As Dana Moss has shown, the prevalence of transnational repression can be a principal factor in determining whether anti-authoritarian movements – for example, the wave of uprisings in 2011-12 that became known as the ‘Arab Spring’ – receive critical support from anti-regime diasporas. 

Currently, the Canadian government has no comprehensive approach to combatting transnational repression, nor even are Activists-in-Exile acknowledged as a discreet group with distinct needs (and skills) by government policy. In the current – highly unpredictable – international landscape, Canada would do well to ensure that such people receive the recognition, support and protection that they deserve and that their fates do not depend on geopolitics or political expediency.  


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