By Hasanboy Burhanov – Founder of the political opposition movement Erkin O’zbekiston (Free Uzbekistan)
On 2 October 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident journalist, was killed by agents of the Saudi government at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. He was aware that Mohammad bin Salman, the ruler of Saudi Arabia, wants his death. So why then did Jamal willingly walk into the Saudi consulate, stepping into a house of his mortal enemy?
The reason is: having divorced his wife, he went to the Consulate to obtain a document certifying that he was no longer married, so he could marry his Turkish fiancée. Any Western democratic country would demand the same document from him to allow him to remarry, and the only way to obtain it is to kindly ask the tyrant to oblige.
The situation Jamal Khashoggi found himself in is daily reality for millions of people who fled their countries. They may have fled years ago, built a new life for themselves in Germany or France, but they are not off the hook. One day their passports would expire – they would need new ones; if not passports, then a certificate of criminal record, or a birth certificate or some other document. And the only way to get it would be to ask the tyrants they had fled from to provide it.
Legal documents required by Western democracies become a leverage tyrants employ to control and silence their opposition abroad. Every emigrant fleeing the regime knows that if they become too vocal in their criticism they may regret it when their host country requests to provide a document of paper, for which they would need to travel back to their homeland – right into dictator’s embrace.
The case of criminal record certificates, required by many EU countries for obtaining residence permits, is especially telling. Many Russian prisoners, including paedophiles and murderers, were drafted into the Wagner mercenary group to fight in Ukraine. Those who survived get their criminal record wiped – from now on they would be able to present a clean slate, properly supported by Russia-issued papers, to any EU inquiry. At the same time, Alexey Navalny – the most famous political prisoner in Russia – will not get such a luxury: his criminal record is extensive, and it includes convictions for terrorism. If the EU judges potential immigrants by their paper records, a convicted paedophile with Ukrainian blood on their hands will look much more preferable to them than a civil activist, whose real crime was to voice their dissent.
Sometimes dictators use this power quite directly. Lukashenko, the Belorussian dictator that lost elections to Svietlana Tikhanovskaya, had ceased to issue Belorussian passports abroad. So by the current EU law, Svietlana Tikhanovskaya – once her passport expires – is expected to return to Belarus and ask Lukashenko to issue a new one for her.
We recommend to stop the practices sending citizens of countries under dictatorships back to their countries, when they need to obtain some the documents from their homeland. These documents are not trustworthy, obtaining them carries risk, and requiring them gives dictatorships undue leverage over their citizens abroad.
- In all democratic countries, amendments should be adopted to regulations that require foreigners, when interacting with government and civil organizations, to present documents with a limited validity period from their country of origin. This includes police clearance certificates, civil status certificates, newly issued birth certificates, and others. If the foreigner’s country of origin is on the list of non-democratic countries, these documents may be substituted with an affidavit signed by the applicant.
- A regulation should be adopted for all passport-related procedures, including border crossings and travel, for citizens of nations on the list of non-democratic countries. This regulation would permit the use of an expired passport and/or a valid ID issued by the country of residence, such as a residence permit or another form of identification.
We should not urge emigrants who fled their countries escaping tyranny to go back to their oppressors to ask for necessary papers putting their lives and freedom at risk.