The United States has long been a haven for political refugees. But there are examples of operatives from the home government tracking, harming, and killing political opponents who have come to the U.S. for protection.

Probably the most famous example occurred only a few blocks from my office, in Sheridan Circle in 1976, when Chilean dissident Orlando Letelier and his American assistant Ronni Moffitt were killed by a car bomb. Mr. Letelier held a number of top government jobs in Chile during the Salvador Allende government, but after President Allende was ousted in a coup (and murdered along with thousands of others), Mr. Letelier was detained and tortured by the new government, led by Augusto Pinochet. Thanks to international pressure, Mr. Letelier was released and made his way to the U.S. Here, he worked and lobbied against the Pinochet regime. These activities brought him to the attention of Pinochet supporters and the Chilean secret police, who organized the assassination with help from several anti-Castro Cubans. Mr. Letelier and Ms. Moffitt were killed when a bomb planted in their car exploded. Ms. Moffitt's husband was injured. Ultimately, a number of Chileans and Cubans were charged in relation to the murders, though none served more than a few years in prison.

I have seen less dramatic examples of this type of foreign interference in my own practice. One of my asylee clients is a journalist and activist from Balochistan, a troubled region of Pakistan where dissent has been brutally repressed. My client has a long list of colleagues and friends who were murdered by the Pakistani authorities. Ultimately, my client had to flee Pakistan to save his life. In the U.S., he continued his activities and I went to see one of his talks. Among the attendees was a representative from the Pakistani embassy, who was present to let my client know that he was still being monitored by his home government.

Another example is a client from Iran who was an activist for democracy and secularism. The Iranian government sent someone to film the outside of his house in Virginia. They also hacked his lap top and recorded video from inside the house. All this was broadcast on Iranian television. In addition, an Iranian operative set him up and caused him to be arrested for a crime in the U.S. The conviction landed my client in removal proceedings, and made him ineligible for asylum. In the end, he received protection under the United Nations Convention Against Torture and was able to remain in the U.S., even though he did not feel entirely safe here.

A new report from Freedom House documents cases involving "transnational repression," and finds that "governments around the world have engaged in increasingly brazen attempts to stifle dissent by attacking critics who live abroad." Freedom House has documented 735 incidents of "direct, physical transnational repression" between 2014 and 2021, with 85 incidents occurring in 2021. Many of these incidents were facilitated by the host country (such as arrest and forced repatriation to the country of feared persecution), but some occurred without the consent of the host country. For example, repressive regimes, led by China and Turkey, threatened, harmed, kidnapped, and killed dissidents in third countries.

The report lists several examples from the United States, and notes that, the "governments of Iran, China, Egypt, Russia, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and other states are increasingly and more aggressively disregarding US laws to threaten, harass, surveil, stalk, and even plot to physically harm people across the country." Sometimes family members in the home country are detained or threatened, as a way of controlling dissidents abroad. Repressive regimes also initiate abusive Interpol notices based on false criminal charges. Such notices could result in a person's extradition to the country of feared harm, and even if that fails, they are an effective way to intimidate political opponents who are overseas.

As the report notes, asylum seekers are particularly vulnerable to transnational repression since they are waiting--often for years--to learn whether they might be deported to a country where they face harm. During this time, they may be unable to obtain a passport and they live with the knowledge that their home government may yet obtain custody of them.

Fortunately, there have been some recent positive developments related to transnational repression. The U.S. government is aware of these abusive tactics and has been responding. In 2021, the Justice Department issued indictments against foreign agents from China, Iran, and Egypt, all related to transnational repression. Also, late last year, Congress passed the "Transnational Repression Accountability and Prevention (TRAP) Act," which "attempts to counter cooptation of Interpol by authoritarian states" and will hopefully protect political dissidents from abusive Interpol notices.

It is important that the U.S. government take a stand against transnational repression, since authoritarian governments are increasingly working together to persecute dissidents across borders, and the world is becoming less safe for opponents of repressive regimes. The United States should continue and expand its efforts to support activists for democracy and freedom, as this is a powerful way to help counter the growing international authoritarian movement. Our asylum system was created for this very purpose--a tangible manifestation of our commitment to protect those who support our values. But granting asylum is not enough. We also need to ensure that asylees and asylum seekers are safe within our borders, and that hostile foreign powers face harsh consequences when they violate our national sovereignty to harm those we have chosen to protect.

Originally posted on the Asylumist: