Contents – The long reach: How authoritarian countries are silencing critics abroad


The Spring 2024 issue of Index looks at how authoritarian states are bypassing borders in order to clamp down on dissidents who have fled their home state. In this issue we investigate the forms that transnational repression can take, as well as highlighting examples of those who have been harassed, threatened or silenced by the long arm of the state.

The writers in this issue offer a range of perspectives from countries all over the world, with stories from Turkey to Eritrea to India providing a global view of how states operate when it comes to suppressing dissidents abroad. These experiences serve as a warning that borders no longer come with a guarantee of safety for those targeted by oppressive regimes.


Up Front

Border control, by Jemimah Steinfeld: There's no safe place for the world's dissidents. World leaders need to act.

The Index, by Mark Frary: A glimpse at the world of free expression, featuring Indian elections, Predator spyware and a Bahraini hunger strike.


Just passing through, by Eduardo Halfon: A guided tour through Guatemala's crime traps.

Exporting the American playbook, by Amy Fallon: The culture wars are finding new ground in Canada, where the freedom to read is the latest battle.

The couple and the king, by Clemence Manyukwe: Tanele Maseko saw her activist husband killed in front of her eyes, but it has not stopped her fight for democracy.

Obrador's parting gift, by Chris Havler-Barrett: Journalists are free to report in Mexico, as long as it's what the president wants to hear.

Silencing the faithful, by Simone Dias Marques: Brazil's religious minorities are under attack.

The anti-abortion roadshow, by Rebecca L Root: The USA's most controversial new export could be a campaign against reproductive rights.

The woman taking on the trolls, by Daisy Ruddock: Tackling disinformation has left Marianna Spring a victim of trolling, even by Elon Musk.

Broken news, by Mehran Firdous: The founder of The Kashmir Walla reels from his time in prison and the banning of his news outlet.

Who can we trust?, by Kimberley Brown: Organised crime and corruption have turned once peaceful Ecuador into a reporter's nightmare.

The cost of being green, by Thien Viet: Vietnam's environmental activists are mysteriously all being locked up on tax charges.

Who is the real enemy?, by Raphael Rashid: Where North Korea is concerned, poetry can go too far - according to South Korea.

The law, when it suits him, by JP O'Malley: Donald Trump could be making prison cells great again.

Special Report: The long reach - how authoritarian countries are silencing critics abroad

Nowhere is safe, by Alexander Dukalskis: Introducing the new and improved ways that autocracies silence their overseas critics.

Welcome to the dictator's playground, by Kaya Genç: When it comes to safeguarding immigrant dissidents, Turkey has a bad reputation.

The overseas repressors who are evading the spotlight, by Emily Couch: It's not all Russia, China and Saudi Arabia. Central Asian governments are reaching across borders too.

Everything everywhere all at once, by Daisy Ruddock: It's both quantity and quality when it comes to how states attack dissent abroad.

A fatal game of international hide and seek, by Danson Kahyana: After leaving Eritrea, one writer lives in constants fear of being kidnapped or killed.

Our principles are not for sale, by Jirapreeya Saeboo: The Thai student publisher who told China to keep their cash bribe.

Refused a passport, by Sally Gimson: A lesson from Belarus in how to obstruct your critics.

Be nice, or you're not coming in, by Salil Tripathi: Is the murder of a Sikh activist in Canada the latest in India's cross-border control.

An agency for those denied agency, by Amy Fallon: The Sikh Press Association's members are no strangers to receiving death threats.

Always looking behind, by Zhou Fengsuo and Nathan Law: If you're a Tiananmen protest leader or the face of Hong Kong's democracy movement, China is always watching.

Putting Interpol on notice, by Tommy Greene: For dissidents who find themselves on Red Notice, it's all about location, location, location

Living in Russia's shadow, by Irina Babloyan, Andrei Soldatov and Kirill Martynov: Three Russian journalists in exile outline why paranoia around their safety is justified.


Solidarity, Assange-style, by Martin Bright: Our editor-at-large on his own experience working with Assange.

Challenging words, by Emma Briant: An academic on what to do around the weaponisation of words.

Good, bad and everything that's in between, by Ruth Anderson: New threats to free speech call for new approaches.


Ukraine's disappearing ink, by Victoria Amelina and Stephen Komarnyckyj: One of several Ukrainian writers killed in Russia's war, Amelina's words live on.

One-way ticket to freedom?, by Ghanem Al Masarir and Jemimah Steinfeld: A dissident has the last laugh on Saudi, when we publish his skit.

The show must go on, by Katie Dancey-Downs, Yahya Marei and Bahaa Eldin Ibdah: In the midst of war Palestine's Freedom Theatre still deliver cultural resistance, some of which is published here.

Fight for life - and language, by William Yang: Uyghur linguists are doing everything they can to keep their culture alive.

Freedom is very fragile, by Mark Frary and Oleksandra Matviichuk: The winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize on looking beyond the Nuremberg Trials lens.

Contents – In bad faith: How religion is being weaponised by the right


The Autumn 2023 issue of Index looks at blasphemy laws, and how they are being weaponised by the religious right as a means of imposing intolerance. We wanted to understand the ways in which religion is being used by states as an excuse for censorship, and how this has played out in a global context.

The writers in this issue have examined blasphemy laws in countries all over the world, shining a light on the those who have been left voiceless or have been persecuted in the name of religion. These worrying stories paint a picture of a growing movement amongst the religious right that threatens to suppress those who do not conform to increasingly strict cultures and norms.

Up Front

Faithful foot soldiers, by Jemimah Steinfeld: The religious right is in, our rights to speech out.

The Index, by Mark Frary: From fraught elections in Mali to Russians launching VPNs, this is free expression in focus.


Oiling the wheels of injustice, by Francis Clarke and Mark Frary: Behind a mega-city construction and the roar of Formula 1, Saudi Arabia is driving human rights further into the ground.

Pinochet's ghost still haunts, by Juan Carlos Ramírez Figueroa: The Chilean dictator is long gone, but support lingers on.

The dissident lives on, by Martin Bright: The dissident is not dead, long live the dissident.

No place to hide, by Nik Williams: Transnational repression has no borders in a digital world.

Peer pressure, by Thiện Việt: In China, enforced social rankings aren’t just confined to the realms of Black Mirror.

No country for anxious men, by Laura Silvia Battaglia: A mental health crisis in Yemen has left people locked up with no voice.

Nollywood gets naked, by Tilewa Kazeem: It’s getting hot in Nigeria, as the film scene strips back on what’s deemed inappropriate.

Policing symbolism, by Jimena Ledgard: Peruvian protesters are being met with violence, and not even flower carpets are safe.

Setting the story straight, by Danson Kahyana: Uganda’s new anti-homosexuality law is having an unexpected effect, with literature being ripped apart.

A marriage made in transgression, by Alexandra Domenech: Despite being tortured by security forces and her fiancé thrown in jail, Russian dissident Alexandra Popova is staying put in Moscow.

Out of the oven, into the fire, by Mir Aiyaz: Rohingya Muslims hoping for open arms in India are getting a cold reception.

Special Report: In bad faith - how religion is being weaponised by the right

For the love of God?, by Rebecca L Root: As intolerance rises in many parts of the world, a misplaced profanity can spell out death.

Worshippers of power, by Jemimah Steinfeld: Under the eye of the religious right, Margaret Atwood discusses why a blasphemy accusation holds so much power.

King David he is not, by JP O'Malley: The USA's religious right is playing the Trump Card.

No sex please, we're Hindus, by Salil Tripathi: Oppenheimer isn't just breaking box office records, it's offending Hindu nationalists.

In the name of the father?, by Francis Clarke: A far from extensive list of the countries currently imposing sentences on those who "offend".

A call to harm, by Ayesha Khan: Pakistan has some of the world's harshest blasphemy laws, but punishments come from those outside the law too.

The blasphemy obstacle course, by Mai Al-Nakib: Kuwait's rocky relationship with blasphemy laws is breeding a generation of self-censored authors.

Self-worship is the new religion, by Tara Isabella Burton: A new faith is emerging and it's not necessarily open to different views.

Think of the children, by Katie Dancey-Downs: When Juno Dawson's stories are banned, is it really about the books?

Turkey's zealots still want blood, by Kaya Genç: A foundation related to the controversial and failed translation of The Satanic Verses continues to be attacked.

Sharia Law and disorder, by Kola Alapinni: When the state fails to step in, violent mobs control the punishments for blasphemy in Nigeria.

Loose hair in Tehran, by Farnaz Haeri: The writer describes her first time walking out in Iran without a headscarf.

Handmaid's tale in a holy land, by Jo-Ann Mort: In an Israel that is eroding women's rights, female-free billboards and segregated beaches are just some of the battlegrounds.

Practise what they preach, by Simon Coates: Religious values are an excuse to eradicate LGBTQ+ discussion in the UAE, while tolerance is forgotten.

Poland's papal problem, by Kseniya Tarasevich: One Pope's lack of integrity paints a picture of Poland's infiltrated politics.


Turkish and European courts failed me, by Nedim Türfent: How one journalist swapped a press card for a "terrorist" badge.

Truth in seduction, by Mark Hollingsworth: A historian struggles to lift the cloak of secrecy on a KGB-orchestrated sex scandal.

First they came for the female journalists, by Zahra Joya: The space for women in Afghanistan is ever-diminishing, and female journalists are crucial.

Speak, debate, challenge, by Ruth Anderson: Index's guiding framework remains the same in a 2023 context.


Will Paulina ever rest?, by Ariel Dorfman and Jemimah Steinfeld: The Death and the Maiden protagonist fights for justice once more. Plus an exclusive new short story.

Lines of inquiry, by Richard Norton-Taylor: The thorn in intelligence establishment's side explains the growing pressure on whistleblowers

Saudi LGBTQ refugees live in fear of being kidnapped

A note from the authors: The piece published below was originally written for and pitched to Vice World News, who wanted exclusive publishing rights for it. Subsequently, the piece was delayed for weeks on end, while the editorial staff informed us that this was because the publication maintained a team in Saudi Arabia and they were worried about safety. 

We were concerned privately that this could amount to a case of catch-and-kill, so asked to be released from the contract to find another publisher. We were then told from a senior executive that they still wanted to publish the piece, and that it would be out within the next two weeks following this discussion. After this period, we were let go from our contract, with the piece not being published and with no more concrete update as to the precise nature of the problem. Following that, the story behind our piece was among those picked up by the Guardian, as part of an investigation into a pattern of behaviour at Vice with regards to Saudi Arabia.

The resulting noise created by the publication of the Guardian article helped us make the connections and get enough attention to be able to help place this important piece instead with Index on Censorship.

In the wake of the tragic death of a Saudi trans woman who was coerced back to the country before taking her own life, LGTBQ Saudis are speaking out against threats they receive from their families and their fear of state authorities.

Gay, trans, and queer Saudis living in the UK and US spoke to XXXX [see note at the end of this article] about growing pressure from back home, including fear of issues such as digital surveillance, paid informants and the involvement of Saudi officials.

Many of those interviewed about their experiences claimed that the Saudi state is actively helping families to harass and threaten their children, even after they have claimed asylum in the West.

“Accepting yourself as a member of the LGBT community, the day that you admit yourself that you are a gay Saudi or a trans Saudi is the same day that you accept that you can get killed at any minute, whether you are in Saudi Arabia or outside,” Kansas-based LGBTQ dissident Abdulrahman Alkhiary, professionally known as Wajeeh Lion, told XXXX over Zoom. Under Saudi law, homosexuality is an offence that can result in the death penalty.

Suhail al-Jameel said they were sentenced to three years in jail for posting this photo. Credit: Suhail-al-Jameel/X (Twitter)

For LGBTQ Saudis, online visibility can be dangerous. A gay Saudi influencer (Suhail al-Jameel, pictured) was given three years in jail for posting a photo of himself wearing shorts on a beach in 2019. A TikTok creator was arrested in 2022 for a video with ‘lesbian undertones’; two male journalists were outed as gay in retaliation for contact with foreign media; and authorities have even seized rainbow-coloured toys, claiming they encourage homosexuality.

In another recent video, nonbinary Saudi citizen Tariq Ali described how they had been arrested and charged with a “cyber information crime, for creating, sharing and sending content that hurts the national system, religious values and social morals, using the internet". Ali claims that Saudi authorities “violated my privacy completely, stole my videos and photos and watched them, then prosecuted me for it.”

These incidents contradict Saudi Arabia’s efforts to present itself as more progressive to the outside world, including by relaxing female guardianship laws and allowing women to drive. The Saudi tourism authority recently updated its website to claim that LGBTQ travellers would be welcome to visit the country.

The dangers facing LGBTQ people born in Saudi came into sharp focus following the death of a young transgender Saudi woman named Eden Knight in March 2023. Knight’s suicide note said that her family hired US private investigators, with assistance from a Saudi official, to coerce her back to the country. There, she was forced to de-transition, and later died by suicide. Her family is wealthy and well-connected to the regime. Her father, Fahad al-Shathri, is a deputy governor at SAMA, the Saudi Central Bank. We reached out to the al-Shathri family ahead of this article being published for comment but received no response.

After Knight’s case made international news, LGBTQ Saudis in the UK organised a protest outside the Saudi embassy, where a number of people spoke to XXXX about their experiences. Many of those who spoke agreed to do so on condition of anonymity fearing repercussions from their families or the Saudi state. Most used their chosen names rather than their birth names.

Yara, an 18-year-old trans woman from Riyadh, has been in the UK for nine months and received asylum status. She says her family used to lock her in her room and forbid her from seeing friends, determined for her to get married and follow a traditional lifestyle. “They tried to kill me but I escaped,” Yara says. After she left, they called her daily, telling her to return. “A lot of people I know here, their family came to the UK to chase them,” Yara told us.

Fear of the Saudi state is referenced frequently by LGBTQ dissidents living outside the country. “It’s happening for all of us. Sometimes they go to our friends and offer them a large amount of money to give them our information,” said Prati, 23, a nonbinary Saudi protester. They added that families lie to their children to make them return, but “it’s always the same lie because the government or the embassy is saying ‘that’s what to say’ to their children.”

Saudi Arabia’s ruling family, the Al Saud, who gave the country its name, sit on top of the state’s patriarchal system. Yet the male control of power extends to most other Saudi families, and it is the men in these families who are responsible for the abuse reported by those interviewed for this article.

Dave, 37, who grew up in the Saudi city of Jeddah and the UK, told XXXX that he was subjected to serious abuse as a child. “My dad once took me to an industrial slaughterhouse when I was 10-11 years old to make me more ‘man’ and less ‘girly.’ He forced me to slaughter sheep in that place,” he said. “I had nightmares for weeks.”

Dave said his family “tried to lure me in many ways and gave me a couple of ultimatums to get married to a woman. My father once secretly colluded with the head of a hospital and a psychiatrist to coax me into conversion therapy. The psychiatrist deceptively befriended me and tried to convince me that he could cure most gay men, except if they were bottoms.” In some Middle Eastern cultures, playing a submissive or ‘female’ role in sex as a man is seen as more shameful than being a ‘top’.

Dave also claimed that another of his father’s friends, who worked for the Saudi state, allegedly threatened him. “I said I wanted to seek asylum, I couldn’t say I was gay. The guy threatened me, saying ‘we can get you back from any place in the world’.” Dave’s experiences resemble those of LGBT Saudis interviewed by The Athletic in 2021, which reported “multiple allegations of attempted cure therapy in some of the country’s celebrated “mental health” hospitals”.

Knight’s note, as well as messages reviewed by XXXX, said her family had hired “fixers” and a lawyer in the USA to pressure her to detransition.

“I cut my hair, I stopped taking oestrogen, I changed my wardrobe, I met my dad. And then had another breakdown. My mom kept telling me to repent or I was going to hell,” she wrote in the note.

The US government is now investigating Knight’s death and its connection to both US operatives and Saudi state-linked officials, telling VICE News: “We have seen these reports and are studying these allegations”.

Vague Saudi laws criminalising parental ‘disobedience’, cross dressing, and “disrupt[ing] the order and fabric of society,” mean that LGBTQ Saudis are vulnerable to abuse by family members because of their sexuality and gender identity.

Laura, 25, a trans Saudi refugee who lives in the UK, told XXXX she had endured terrible hardships growing up in Saudi Arabia. “My family found out that I am transgender, so they started to oppress me with all kinds of abuse that you can imagine,” she said, speaking to us at the protest “I was sexually harassed and assaulted, one of my uncles sexually assaulted me.”

Other attendees at the protest described their inability to trust people after being abused by family members because of their sexuality or gender identity. Emma, age 17, a nonbinary Saudi who has claimed asylum in the UK, told XXXX that following the protest at the Saudi embassy which they attended, bounties issued by anonymous Saudi accounts on Twitter were put on people who took part in the protest offering money for information about them. Several other attendees said they had had the same experience.

Saudi attempts to control Twitter discourse have been widely reported, with the use of bot armies, and even a spy who infiltrated the company to gain access to users’ private information. In 2022 a Saudi student who was studying at Leeds University in the UK was given a 34 year prison sentence after returning to Saudi Arabia to visit family, her only crime being a Twitter account where she followed and retweeted Saudi dissidents.

XXXX spoke to Micro Rainbow, a social enterprise supporting LGBTQ refugees and asylum seekers in the UK.

“When it comes to people from Saudi Arabia, there is definitely a sense of anxiety around being connected to people from their communities… coming from the fact that they fear that their family members have sent someone to find where they are,” CEO Sebastian Rocca said.

“We had a case of someone [from Saudi Arabia] who had to change their phone number three times because people from the community found it out…we had another where someone told us that their friends were offered an insane amount of money if they had disclosed their location…the pressure from the families is very, very real.”

“The people we support often come from very wealthy families and because of that their families have the means to send an investigator to the UK or to come themselves and look for the people we are supporting.”

For LGBTQ Saudi refugees who have reached the UK, the key, Rocca said, is to get in contact with an aid organisation for safe housing or specialist legal advice. He urges any LGBTQ Saudi refugees and asylum seekers to contact a relevant organisation as quickly as possible due to recent legislative changes in the asylum-seeking process, any delay will work against them in their case.

At the protest for Eden Knight, Yara told XXXX that “I would like to get a word to Saudis who claim asylum here… You are so strong, you are worthy. Don’t let your family let you down. Just continue your life, continue to love. Everything will get better.”

This article was originally meant to appear on Vice and we decided against inserting Index to interviews and stuck with XXXX. We contacted Vice for comment but they have not responded. However, the Vice Union have since issued a statement in response to the Guardian story, which you can read here.

Salma al-Shehab becomes the latest Saudi prisoner to go on hunger strike

Salma is one of many Saudi prisoners of conscience to go on hunger strike

Salma al-Shehab, a 34-year-old mother of two and former PhD student at the University of Leeds, who in 2021 was handed a 34-year-long jail sentence for tweeting her support for women’s human rights defenders in her native Saudi Arabia, has gone on hunger strike.

Salma was arrested in January 2021 while on a visit home from the UK to see her family. She then faced months of interrogation over her activity on Twitter.

In March 2022 she was sentenced to six years in prison by the country’s Specialized Criminal Court (SCC) under the vague wording of the country’s Counter-Terrorism Law, but this was increased on appeal to an unprecedented 34-year term followed by a 34-year travel ban.

The SCC was originally established to try terrorism cases but its remit has widened to cover people who speak out against human rights violations in the country. Salma is one of a number of people tried by the SCC who have been handed farcically long sentences for simply expressing their human rights. The SCC is the main tool with which Saudi Arabia has effectively criminalised freedom of expression.

In January this year, Salma’s sentence was reduced to 27 years after a retrial was ordered. During the retrial, the presiding judge denied Salma the right to speak in her defence.

Salma has been joined on hunger strike by seven other prisoners of conscience, who have been handed jail terms longer than those which would be handed out to hijackers threatening to bomb a plane.

In Saudi Arabia, prisoners of conscience often go on hunger strike to protest their treatment. Those resorting to this include women’s rights activist Loujain Al-Hathloul, the blogger Raif Badawi, the academic and human rights defender Mohammad al-Qahtani, the writer Muhammad al-Hudayf and the lawyer Walid Abu al-Khair.

ALQST’s head of monitoring and advocacy, Lina Alhathloul, the sister of Loujain, said: "Knowing how harshly the Saudi authorities respond to hunger strikes, these women are taking an incredibly brave stand against the multiple injustices they have faced. When your only way of protesting is to risk your life by refusing to eat, one can only imagine the inhumane conditions al-Shehab and the others are having to endure in their cells.”

ALQST says that in previous hunger strikes, prison officials often wait several days before taking any action. “When they have eventually acted, it has been to threaten the prisoners with punishment if they continue their strike, and then place them in solitary confinement in dire conditions, subjecting them to invasive medical examinations and threatening to force-feed them. Phone calls, visitors and activities are also denied, in an attempt to coerce prisoners to end their hunger strikes,” the organisation said.

Salma and her fellow hunger strikers should never have been arrested and jailed in the first place for simply exercising freedom of expression that people take for granted in countries other than Saudi Arabia. They should have their sentences quashed and released from prison immediately.