Not much time has passed since the murder of critical Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at his country’s embassy in Istanbul in October 2018, before the human rights scene was haunted by a similar incident. In June 2021, Emirati activist and dissident Alaa Al-Siddiq died in a car accident in Oxford, UK. Described as the “icon of the Emirati human rights movement,” Alaa lived a difficult life in exile in London after having spent a few years in Qatar.
While she was not intentionally murdered like Khashoggi, Al-Siddiq was also a victim of the censorship of free speech even while living abroad in the ‘liberal’ West. Three months after her death, a Canadian interdisciplinary communication and technologies hub, Citizen Lab, discovered that Alaa’s smart phone was infected between 2015 and 2020 by the Israeli spyware Pegasus: the Emirati government, among other Arab countries, has been was accused of using Pegasus to track its critical voices. Al-Siddiq’s photos, messages, and locations had all been tracked by the spyware, leading activists and journalists to assert that “even in death, there was little peace for Alaa Al-Siddiq.”
Leaving one’s home to exile is not an easy mission. Alaa’s death opens a conversation about the thousands whose lives were threatened by the regimes of their countries, and who know that crossing borders does not keep them away from danger. Two months ago, for example, The MENA Prison Forum posted a blog post which pointed to the perils that Egyptian academics studying in Western countries face when returning back home. In the same vein, findings of the MPF fieldwork show that academic conferences held in major Western Capital cities such as Berlin, Vienna, and Washington DC are often infiltrated by state officials and diplomats from different MENA countries. By following the social media accounts of the conferences and by forming contacts with the administrations of the hosting universities, governments send their agents to attend panels and workshops that discuss political, economic, and social ordeals of the region.
The tragic end of Al-Siddiq also encourages a revision to historical moments when London was a trap not only for activists but also for dissident diplomats and politicians. Just a few decades ago, Saddam Hussein developed a network of spies in London. In July 1978, New York Times reported that General Abdul Razzak Al‐Naif was shot dead “in front of the Intercontinental Hotel across from Hyde Park.” Al-Naif, who shortly served as Iraq’s Prime Minister in 1968, escaped to London with his family following threats by Saddam’s regime. While Al-Naif survived an assassination attempt in 1972 after he openly criticized Saddam’s ruling, he sadly met his fate six years later.
Crossing borders is not only a physical movement, but it can also be done metaphorically through writings, artistic interventions, or advocacy work. Beyond those who have developed an exile identity, developing a connection with the Middle East and its politics might put the lives of ‘Western’ nationals in risk. In August 2021, Nosrat Bazoft, mother of executed British-Iranian journalist Farzad Bazoft, confirmed that her son had been trapped by Saddam’s London-based agents. Executed by Saddam’s regime in March 1990, at the time Bazoft was working for the UK’s Observer and concerned with the Iraqi’s nuclear and chemical programs. However, he had gone to Iraq by the end of the 1980s to cover elections in Kurdish areas. While his journalistic trip was upon an official invitation by Saddam Hussein himself, Bazoft was arrested at Baghdad International Airport while waiting for his flight back to London, and subsequently tried and hung upon accusations of being a spy for Israel.
Whether killed and/or tracked at home or abroad, seeking justice and good governance for the people of the MENA region usually has a price. If guns, knives, and spywares can cross borders to silence dissident and alternative voices, Al-Siddiq’s message will indeed continue like the legacies of the heroes who preceded her.