The United Nations Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances reported 820 new cases of abductions by state actors globally between May 2017 and May 2018. Enforced disappearance is a frequent and a widely used tactic: the latest figures indicate that 94 countries have outstanding cases of state abductions. Incidents of this kind are also prone to significant underreporting, so actual numbers are likely to be much higher.
By their very nature, enforced disappearances either undertaken or endorsed by state actors are quite different from abductions perpetrated by criminal or other non-state groups. For victims and their families, there is often little legal recourse in bringing about the release of abductees. Perhaps emboldened by the lack of substantive national or international sanctions, enforced disappearances have become a frequently used government tool to contain dissent in some states, often under the pretext of combating terrorism or crime.
Arguably the most widely reported abduction in 2018 was that of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was allegedly detained and killed by Saudi Arabian security forces at their consulate compound in Istanbul. While state-directed extraterritorial abductions are not a new phenomenon, their use by Saudi Arabia and others begs the question of whether such tactics have, to an extent, become normalised. A variety of increasingly brazen state security operations carried out abroad suggests we can expect a continuation of the same looking ahead to 2019. State-sanctioned disappearances are no exception.
In February 2018, a former Vietnamese oil executive named Trịnh Xuân Thanh received two life sentences in separate corruption cases involving the country’s state-owned energy company. Back in July 2017, Thanh had been controversially abducted in Germany, where he was seeking political asylum, by alleged Vietnamese intelligence agents. The abduction occurred in Berlin’s Tiergarten Park. Armed Vietnamese agents reportedly forced Thanh, along with a female Vietnamese embassy staff member, into a waiting vehicle. Vietnamese state-owned media subsequently reported that Thanh had returned voluntarily to Vietnam before handing himself over to local authorities. The abduction case occurred amid an ongoing anti-corruption crackdown by Vietnamese authorities. Many international observers are sceptical of this process, noting that several of the targeted officials and executives have links to former Prime Minister Nguyễn Tễn Dũng, the rival of current Vietnamese Communist Party Chairperson, Nguyễn Phú Trễng. Arbitrary detention and imprisonment of government critics on national security grounds or other vague charges continued through 2018. With more than 100 people currently imprisoned in Vietnam on dubious charges, we can expect the government to continue to use state-sanctioned abductions to suppress dissent in 2019.
On 2 October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent journalist and critic of the Saudi government, walked into the country's consulate in Istanbul, and has not been seen since. Turkish officials, and subsequently the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), claim Khashoggi was murdered by a team of Saudi agents inside the building. After initial denials and claims that Khashoggi had left the consulate shortly after arriving, Saudi Arabia admitted the journalist was killed in a "rogue operation" that the Saudi leadership had not been aware of. This version of events, however, has been challenged by many international observers, the CIA and media outlets, who allege Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, the country’s de facto ruler, must have known about the plot to murder Khashoggi. Other sources allege the initial plan was to abduct Khashoggi and take him back to Saudi Arabia, and that he was killed after he resisted such efforts. While killing a government critic inside a consulate is an unprecedented act that will almost certainly not become common practice, not least due to the international outrage it sparked, this incident is yet another example of state actors going to extraordinary lengths to silence dissidents abroad. Furthermore, the hesitancy displayed by many international powers to impose punitive measures on Saudi Arabia means that the country will likely continue to intimidate and arrest activists and dissidents in 2019, if not abroad, then certainly at home.
In August 2018, the former Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, was arrested in Italy at the request of Egyptian authorities, before being released following mounting international media scrutiny.
Since the military coup in 2013 that toppled President Mohamed Morsi, Egyptian authorities have employed various tactics to target political opponents both locally and abroad. While there are no reported cases of political abductions in foreign countries, authorities have exploited bilateral agreements to extradite political opponents from abroad. Even though the concept of extradition is premised on legal agreements, many international human rights organisations argue that most cases pursued by Egypt are politically motivated. For instance, in August 2018, Mohamed Mahsoub, former Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs, was arrested in Italy at the request of Egyptian authorities, before being released following mounting international media scrutiny. In another incident, in June 2018, Spanish police deported Alaa Said, an imam of a local mosque, to Egypt. Egyptian authorities accuse Said of being a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Said was reportedly sedated by Spanish authorities, and flown on a private plane to Egypt, where he faces charges that could result in life imprisonment or execution. Given Egypt’s deteriorating human rights record, host countries are likely to be hesitant to extradite suspects to Egypt, lest this attracts international condemnation. However, we expect Egyptian authorities to continue using extreme pressure tactics in 2019 to deter would-be dissidents locally and abroad.
According to the Nicaraguan Human Rights Centre, as at August 2018, there were an estimated 400 political prisoners throughout the country, most incarcerated on false pretences and without due process. Since the period of mass anti-government protests began in April 2018, police, soldiers and pro-government paramilitary supporters of the Daniel Ortega administration have carried out over 2,000 arrests. The targets of these detainments include detractors of various kinds such as students, activists and journalists. The detainment tactics are reminiscent of kidnappings, with victims snatched from streets or even from their places of work or study by paramilitaries or police.
400 political prisoners remain in captivity throughout Nicaragua.
Many are presented later to the national press as being guilty of criminal association, damaging public property, murder, extortion and even terrorism, despite, in many cases, not being formally charged. Furthermore, detainees that have been released recount torturous interrogations. The mass detainment of political detractors has been a central tactic of the Ortega administration in quelling anti-government protests. With such protests declared illegal in September 2018, any suspected protest organisers or participants are likely to face harsh recriminations. This heightens the likelihood of further state-sanctioned abductions in 2019.