Press release January 25, 2024
NEW REPORT: Regimes Are Expanding Ways to Intimidate and Silence Opponents
Leaders across the globe have embraced a brutal list of tactics to muzzle critics in and outside of prison.
WASHINGTON—Antidemocratic leaders around the world are using an expansive toolkit of tactics to silence dissent in their borders and maintain their grasp on power, according to a new report released today by Freedom House.
The report, Visible and Invisible Bars: Political imprisonment, civil death, and the consequences of democratic erosion, finds that regimes often lean on weakened judiciaries to lock up human rights defenders, prodemocracy activists, journalists, protesters, and countless others. Beyond directly jailing opponents, the report finds that authorities have embraced a range of tactics that prevent many more individuals from participating normally in society, a concept known as civil death. People experiencing civil death have their travel restricted, movements monitored, property seized, bank accounts frozen, and have been expelled from their university or dismissed from their jobs.
“Around the world antidemocratic leaders are finding new ways to silence those they disagree with,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “The systemic muzzling of critics to maintain a hold on power is no less than a warning sign that a political system is deeply sick. But history has shown that individuals and the political systems themselves are not beyond saving.”
The report comprehensively examines the use of political imprisonment and civil death alongside wider democratic erosion. The new analysis is based on interviews with 42 country experts and explores dynamics in six countries that have undergone significant democratic decline within the last 20 years: Nicaragua, Tanzania, Thailand, Tunisia, Turkey, and Venezuela. Each of the regimes studied has used political imprisonment as a tactic to silence dissent, and political imprisonment surged during times of political tension, such as during election periods. Some examples of tactics contributing to civil death documented in the report include:
Control over travel: Arbitrary restriction of movement, including through travel bans, passport seizures, and required reporting to courts or police stations.
- In Tunisia, shortly after Kais Saïed assumed exceptional powers in 2021, the government imposed travel bans on scores of Tunisians, many of whom only found out upon arrival at the airport.
- In Turkey, those facing open investigations have been deemed “unfit” to have a passport, even before any verdict is handed down in their cases. This comes in addition to the mass revocation of more than 100,000 individuals’ passports soon after the 2016 attempted coup.
Physical monitoring: Frequently carried out by security forces, dissidents’ and other targets’ homes are watched, they are followed once outside, and they and their neighbors are questioned.
- In Thailand, many of the student activists involved in the 2020–21 prodemocracy protests faced relentless police monitoring, including those who had been arrested and released on bail.
Blacklisting: Formal and informal barring of individuals from employment, education, and state benefits, and even stripping away targets’ citizenship.
- In Venezuela, efforts to recall both Chávez and Maduro from the presidency prompted mass dismissals and blacklisting. The Tascón List, led by progovernment politician Luis Tascón, digitally published the names of individuals who had signed petitions to recall Chávez in 2004. This list guided firing and blacklisting decisions for government and state-owned company employers.
- In Tanzania, opposition members and their families have faced difficulty procuring state benefits.
Control over assets: Freezing or seizing bank accounts and confiscating physical property, businesses, and other assets.
- In Nicaragua, in addition to stripping over 300 Nicaraguans of their nationality in February 2023, judges ordered their assets to be seized. The state confiscated houses and farms while erasing owners’ names from property registers, and banks froze the victims’ accounts.
“Political imprisonment and restrictive measures outside of physical confinement empower illiberal leaders by removing their most vocal critics from society,” said Margaux Ewen, director of Free Them All: The Fred Hiatt Program to Free Political Prisoners.
Amy Slipowitz, report co-author and research manager for the Fred Hiatt Program to Free Political Prisoners, added, “The inhumane conditions that political prisoners and their friends, family, and communities are subject to cannot be allowed to continue. Civil society groups and democratic governments must work hand in hand to push back against the rise of autocratic tactics aimed at quelling dissent.”
The report identifies steps that democratic governments, civil society organizations, and donors can take to counter authoritarianism, support advocates of democratic change, and prevent future waves of repression.
Democratic governments can help secure the release of political prisoners by:
- Tailoring advocacy strategies to the unique needs and circumstances of each case. The individual’s well-being is paramount, and the wishes of their family members and legal representation must also be carefully considered.
- Providing financial resources to support political prisoners, their families, and their lawyers, including adequate support after release.
To respond to political imprisonment and civil death, democratic governments can:
- Support relocation efforts for human rights defenders, activists, and journalists at serious risk of political imprisonment or civil death.
To address systemic conditions that enable political imprisonment and civil death, they can:
- Organize multilateral efforts to address democratic backsliding. Efforts to counter authoritarianism and empower rights defenders are most effective when they are coordinated. Democracies should devise comprehensive strategies for deploying targeted sanctions to ensure accountability for international human rights abuses and acts of corruption.
To schedule an interview with Freedom House experts, please contact Maryam Iftikhar at [email protected].
Freedom House is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works to create a world where all are free. We inform the world about threats to freedom, mobilize global action, and support democracy’s defenders.
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