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U.S. allies in Middle East target dissidents on American soil, report says

Egypt and Saudi Arabia, both U.S. allies, use threats, physical surveillance, hostage-taking and prosecutions to try to silence dissidents and rights activists on U.S. soil, according to evidence presented in a report released this week.

The report by the Freedom Initiative, a nonprofit rights organization founded by Egyptian American advocate Mohamed Soltan, found that Cairo and Riyadh have “become more innovative and emboldened” in carrying out transnational repression — the targeting of critics abroad.

While U.S. politicians frequently voice outrage and impose consequences in response to such tactics on the part of adversaries such as China, Iran and Russia, the report argues, policymakers have not meaningfully held Saudi Arabia and Egypt to account — including for behaviors that violate U.S. law and threaten national security.

The findings demonstrate that “U.S. equivocation on rights is a palpable threat to our own citizens, corporations and national interest,” U.S. trial lawyer Jim Walden wrote in the introduction to the report.

The grisly murder and dismembering of Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi by a squad of hit men inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018 drew global outcry, along with attention to attacks on dissidents outside of the countries they criticize. The CIA concluded after the assassination that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had ordered it. Under President Donald Trump, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on 17 people it said were involved.

Even under the brightened spotlight, “we’ve seen authoritarian regimes use kind of novel tactics and become emboldened in how they’re carrying out transnational repression,” said Allison McManus, research director at the Freedom Initiative.

For its report, the organization conducted a survey of 72 people with personal or professional ties to Egypt or Saudi Arabia — many of whom are U.S. citizens and members of the Egyptian and Saudi diasporas — that paints a picture of efforts by the two governments to intimidate dissidents and critics in the United States.

Egyptian human rights advocates and graduate students reported being surveilled by alleged Egyptian operatives at restaurants and public events in Washington. Some respondents reported the Egyptian Embassy had denied them consular services. Some have received death threats, sometimes by callers who identify as Egyptian security officers. Egypt has also put human rights activists and dissidents on trial in absentia, leaving its citizens living in the United States unable to return home, the report says.

Egypt also continues to jail two U.S. legal permanent residents, Hossam Khalaf and Salah Soltan — Mohamed Soltan’s father — whom the United Nations has declared arbitrarily detained, the report says. At least two U.S. citizens have been banned from exiting Egypt. And authorities have “repeatedly” detained family members of individuals living outside of Egypt in retaliation for criticism of the government.

Sherif Mansour, the U.S.-based Middle East and North Africa program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, said relatives in Egypt have been arrested and tortured in connection with his rights work in the United States. In 2020, Egyptian authorities arrested his cousin, Reda Abdelrahman, in what the report calls “an act of state hostage-taking intended to silence Mansour.” Abdelrahman was released in 2021 but remains subject to a travel ban.

“We have stopped talking to anyone in our family, for years,” Mansour said in an interview. He doesn’t send his relatives in Egypt greetings for Ramadan anymore.

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Saudi Arabia has wrongfully detained or placed travel bans on U.S. citizens, the report says. Eight respondents reported Saudi authorities had detained or disappeared their family members. Four said they had been physically followed while in the United States, and five reported receiving threatening phone calls or messages.

Abdullah Alaoudh, the Freedom Initiative’s U.S.-based Saudi director, said he regularly receives threats to his life on social media from users he suspects of acting at the behest of the Saudi government.

In one comment on Twitter this week, a screenshot of which Alaoudh shared with The Washington Post, a user whose account has since been suspended tweeted: “I hope that you return to Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi people will be waiting for you, and you will be hanged on lampposts at the airport, which is the verdict that every traitor deserves.”

“I don’t think they are joking at all,” Alaoudh said, particularly after “they just got away with murder” in the case of Khashoggi.

The Saudi and Egyptian embassies in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

The tactics leave Egyptian and Saudi dissidents feeling unsafe, no matter where in the world they live. Many of those surveyed reported experiencing feelings of isolation or recurring nightmares, or said they have changed their work or study plans.

The United States has not dramatically changed its policies toward Egypt or Saudi Arabia in response to their repression of dissidents at home and abroad. Trump maintained close ties with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed, even after Khashoggi’s murder.

On the campaign trail, President Biden promised to hold Cairo and Riyadh accountable for human rights abuses, pledging to offer “no blank checks” to Sisi and to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” in response to Khashoggi’s assassination.

His administration released a U.S. intelligence report in 2021 indicating the crown prince approved the plan that led to Khashoggi’s death. The State Department also announced the Khashoggi Ban, a measure to impose visa restrictions on individuals who, acting on behalf of a foreign government, carry out acts of transnational repression targeting journalists, activists or other dissidents. Last year, the FBI created a “fusion center” to coordinate agency efforts on the issue.

But the Biden administration and U.S. lawmakers have not made a substantial effort to curb transnational repression by allies — Egypt and Saudi Arabia in particular — on U.S. soil or against U.S. citizens, the report argues.

U.S. blocks $130 million in aid to Egypt over human rights

The United States has withheld a small portion of funding to Egypt over its human rights record while continuing to provide substantial military aid to Cairo. The State Department in January hailed “a historically strong and growing partnership” with Egypt.

“The Biden administration is trying to do the bare minimum,” Mansour said. Determinations on security aid have been “one of the major tests of whether they are going to put their money where their values are,” he added. “And with Egypt, they have missed that chance once, twice, every time.”

Last year, Biden fist-bumped Mohammed during a visit to the kingdom — and his administration has stepped up cooperation with Saudi Arabia, especially as Russia’s war in Ukraine disrupted global energy markets and as Riyadh pushes for a peace deal in Yemen. Saudi Arabia continues to be one of the top importers of U.S. arms.

The Biden administration banned 76 Saudi citizens from entering the United States in relation to Khashoggi’s murder — but not Mohammed. In November, the Biden administration declared him immune from a lawsuit filed in the United States by Khashoggi’s fiancee and a human rights organization.

U.S. declares Saudi crown prince immune from Khashoggi killing lawsuit

“We’ve really seen relationships with Egypt and Saudi Arabia return to business as usual,” McManus said.

The State and Justice Departments did not respond to requests for comment.

The report calls for transnational repression to be codified as a crime under U.S. law. Last month, a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) introduced a bill to that end. An earlier legislative attempt failed.

The FBI, meanwhile, is “taking the issue very seriously,” McManus said. But more training of local law enforcement agencies on responding to reports of transnational repression is needed, especially in places with large diaspora communities, the report says.


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