TNR Watch: Coercion at Home, Pressure Abroad

The Saudi government’s recent decision to arrest five people living in Saudi Arabia after their relatives in the United States sued it in a federal court exemplifies the troubling practice of coercion by proxy.



Governments around the world have long used coercion by proxy—when they punish, harass, or otherwise intimidate the relatives of exiles living abroad—to silence diaspora activists. The Saudi government’s recent decision to arrest five people living in Saudi Arabia after their relatives in the United States sued it in a federal court exemplifies this troubling practice. But coercion by proxy is difficult to combat as it takes place entirely within another country’s borders.

Homeland Hostages: In April and May 2023, Saudi law enforcement arrested five members of a single family and referred them to a specialized counterterrorism court, which is notorious for handing out multidecade sentences for offenses as minor as criticizing the state on social media. Authorities have refused to inform the family’s lawyers of the charges or allow visits. This comes three years after relatives in the United States went to a federal court to sue the Saudi government over a commercial dispute. Coercion by proxy the punishment of relatives and friends of exiles is among the most common tactics of transnational repression. 

A Popular Tactic for Perpetrators: Coercion by proxy is a convenient, low-cost tool of transnational repression; those who use it can apply extreme psychological pressure on their targets without violating a host country’s sovereignty. Saudi Arabia is far from unique in doing this; 32 of the 38 countries that have perpetrated physical acts of transnational repression since 2014 have also employed this tactic. Iranian security officers arrested the mother of two Belgium-based protesters after Tehran mayor Alireza Zakani attended a Brussels summit in June 2023. In August, exiled activist Abubakar Yangulbaev said that male relatives in Chechnya had been forced to fight for Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. Hong Kong authorities, meanwhile, have recently applied pressure on the relatives of exiles, who themselves have been targeted by bounties.

Policy Dilemma: Coercion by proxy presents a unique challenge to policymakers dealing with transnational repression, since this tactic may not directly contravene another country’s legal system, or the perpetrators may be beyond the reach of the host country’s legal system. Consequently, authoritarian regimes may draw less international opprobrium for targeting exiles’ close contacts. Policymakers are aware of the problem, as bills recently introduced in the US Senate and House of Representatives acknowledge this tactic.

Although coercion by proxy may not physically endanger an exile, it does much to psychologically affect them and disrupt their family ties. For example, Beijing monitors calls between Uyghur exiles and relatives still living in China; the government goes so far as to threaten lines of contact unless diaspora members report on each other. While it is difficult for governments to curb a practice originating outside their official borders, host countries and civil society organizations can expand psychosocial support and counselling for vulnerable exiles, publicly condemn coercion by proxy when it happens, and impose targeted sanctions on perpetrators.