LONDON — A member of a protest-art group in Moscow is rendered temporarily unable to see, speak or walk – likely the result of nerve poison. A popular YouTube satirist from the Middle East is beaten on the streets of London. China's most famous actress vanishes. So does the boss of the world's largest international police organization.
Grisly revelations that Saudi Arabia may have helped orchestrate a brazen plot to abduct and even murder Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident-journalist critical of the oil-rich kingdom, have highlighted anew the threats faced by reporters, activists, reform advocates and all those who use their voices and platforms to fight discrimination, rights abuses and corruption while falling on the wrong side of government policy.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, the nation's de facto ruler since 2017, has presided over the arrest of hundreds of activists, officials, writers, religious clerics and even opponents inside his own royal family as part of efforts to suppress dissent and consolidate power, according to Freedom House, a civil liberties group.
The Saudi Arabian government strongly contests any allegations connecting it to Khashoggi's disappearance. He was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, was there that day to get a document that would allow him to wed his Turkish fiancée. Officials in Turkey say they have persuasive audio and video evidence suggesting Khashoggi was tortured, murdered and dismembered. U.S. intelligence officials also previously intercepted communications indicating the Saudis had discussed a plan to capture Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia.
The investigation is still unfolding. Yet, whatever it may ultimately yield, it’s clear that Saudi Arabia has a longstanding record of repressing peaceful dissidents. In May, it detained, without charge, 12 women-rights activists, including the “right-to-drive” campaigner Loujain al-Hathloul, just weeks before the monarchy officially ended a ban on female drivers. Prior to that, in 2014, in an incident that has some potential eerie parallels to the Khashoggi incident, Al-Hathloul had been “rendered” by the Saudis – to Riyadh from Abu Dhabi — for once attempting to drive a car inside the kingdom.
"If Prince Muhammad bin Salman wants to reform Saudi Arabia the best reform would be to release all our political prisoners," said Ensaf Haidar, the wife of Raif Badawi, a writer and social activist jailed in Saudi Arabia after falling afoul of religious authorities.
Badawi was arrested in Jeddah in 2012 for “insulting Islam through electronic channels.” He was a blogger and, according to his wife, a humanitarian and free thinker. In 2013, he was convicted of several charges, including apostasy, and sentenced to 7 years and 600 lashes, a form of punishment with a whip or stick the United Nations says is cruel and inhumane. A year later, the prison term was increased to 10 years and 1,000 lashes. Badawi suffers from hypertension and Haidar, who was granted asylum in Canada with her three children, said her husband’s health is deteriorating. “I hope President Trump can help release my husband,” she said when asked whether Khashoggi’s case would bring new scrutiny of Badawi’s plight. One of Badawi’s alleged crimes was to mock Saudi Arabia’s prohibition against celebrating Valentine’s Day.
Last year, Lebanon's president accused Saudi Arabia of holding captive its former prime minister Saad Hariri and his family as part of an attempt to force him to resign. The Saudis were reportedly unhappy with Lebanon's support for Iran, a bitter Saudi rival, and its allies such as the Shia group Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia disputed the allegation.
Still, Saudi Arabia is not alone in how it apparently treats those not prepared to toe the party line. In fact, harassment, intimidation, arbitrary detention, violence, and even state-sponsored murder are fairly routine tactics used by authoritarian and illiberal governments to crush dissent, according to dozens of reports and studies published by organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.
This year alone, 27 journalists have been murdered in Brazil, the Central African Republic, India, Mexico, and even the European Union and the United States, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Over the last 26 years, 848 have been killed.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres told British media Saturday that incidents such as Khashoggi's disappearance were becoming "the apparent new normal." And President Donald Trump said that if Saudi Arabia were found to be responsible for Khashoggi's death "there will be severe punishment," without elaborating. One thing that could be reviewed is billions of dollars in U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
In Iran, eight environmentalists have languished in prison for eight months without receiving clear charges. Ogulsapar Muradova, an activist and investigative reporter for Radio Free Europe, was tortured and killed while in government custody in Turkmenistan. In Venezuela, Fernando Alban, an opposition party councilman and fierce critic of President Nicolás Maduro, died last week after his arrest in Caracas.
Maduro's regime said Alban took his own life by jumping from the 10th floor of Venezuela's intelligence agency's headquarters. Critics say he was executed.
Ghanem al-Dosari, a Saudi human rights activist known for his biting satirical YouTube videos ridiculing the Saudi royal family, was attacked last month outside the posh London department store Harrods. His assailants shouted slogans supportive of Saudi Arabia's government. Al-Dosari fled Saudi Arabia in 2003. He has never been back.
Chinese Hollywood star Fan Bingbing mysteriously disappeared from the public eye for three months this summer amid $130 million tax evasion allegations, leading to speculation that she was quietly arrested, jailed and "rehabilitated." Fan re-surfaced earlier this month with a lengthy and profuse apology to the Chinese government.
Also, this month: Fan's fellow national, former Interpol chief Meng Hongwei, one of China's most high-profile international officials who also holds a position in China's security establishment, vanished after returning to China, from France, for a visit. The China government later said he was "under investigation" for violating unspecified laws.
The message from China's government appears to be pretty unambiguous: No matter who you are, and no matter where you are, we can get to you if we want.
The German authorities concluded that Pyotr Verzilov, a member of the Russian feminist punk band and activist group Pussy Riot, was likely deliberately poisoned by a nerve agent in September. Over the summer, Verzilov ran onto a field during the World Cup soccer finals in an anti-government protest in Moscow that was seen by millions of people around the world. Verzilov has had various run-ins with Russian security agencies and other members of Pussy Riot have been jailed. He was also looking into the case of three Russian journalists who were killed in the Central Democratic of Congo in August while investigating a private military company with links to the Kremlin.
And there is a long and complex history of Russian deaths and unexplained foul play in the United Kingdom under mysterious and suspicious circumstances with everything from poisoned umbrellas to radioactive substances, including the ongoing saga of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia — poisoned by a Soviet-made nerve agent in the British provincial city of Salisbury earlier this year.
The British government has concluded Moscow was behind the Skripals' poisoning, but Alexander Yakovenko, Russia's ambassador to London, told reporters on Friday that the allegations were simply a result of a concerted effort by Prime Minister Theresa May's administration and other western democracies, including the U.S., to discredit Russia.
"No, we don't accept that," Yakovenko said in response to a question about whether two men accused by Britain of traveling to Salisbury to assassinate Skripal were undercover military officers deployed by GRU, Russia's foreign intelligence agency.
Ali Al-Ahmed, a Washington-based Saudi scholar who claims he has been the target of Saudi government attempts to buy his silence over his negative views about the monarchy, as well as a specific effort several years ago to lure him to different countries including Turkey, said Saudi Arabia "has a system of masters and slaves, princes and paupers" and that it was this, along with a refusal by the Saudis to consider increased political freedoms and reforms, that caused people like Khashoggi, a regular contributor to the Washington Post's Global Opinions section, to speak out.
"I am a republican," he said, referring to the form of government, not the political party. "I believe in equality. I am anti-monarchy and think it's sacrilegious to have one."
Al-Ahmed said he knows Khashoggi but they were not on friendly terms following personal and professional disagreements. He said that he has not dared to step inside a Saudi embassy or consulate since trying to renew his passport a number of years ago.
"(Prince Muhammad bin Salman) is a megalomaniac," he said. "The guy thinks no one can touch him and that he can do whatever he wants. Look, he took the prime minister of Lebanon hostage. And what happened? Nothing happened. I mean, who does that?"