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Authoritarian Abuses: Sketching the Playbook

The weaponisation of anti-finance crime standards to suppress dissent has been documented globally. Through its new project, the CFCS at RUSI is working to transform anecdotal evidence into a taxonomy of tactics – an evidence base upon which to call for greater accountability.

Indian police and National Investigation Agency officials leave after carrying out a raid at the home of a Kashmiri activist on supposed counterterrorism financing grounds. Image: Reuters / Alamy

In his recent address to the ‘No Money for Terror’ ministerial conference, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi chose to remind delegates assembled in New Delhi that ‘only a uniform, unified and zero-tolerance approach can defeat terrorism’. Similar polemics insisting on the existential threat posed by terrorism were on display just weeks earlier when India hosted a special meeting of the UN Security Council on countering the use of new and emerging technologies for terrorist purposes. Curiously fixated on the terrorism issue in a time dominated by state-based aggression and the incalculable threat posed by climate change, India’s zeal to counter terrorism has more than once caught the attention of the human rights organs of the UN system.

Back in October 2020, authorities raided the offices and homes of human rights activists and journalists critical of New Delhi’s policies in Kashmir, supposedly in an operation to disrupt the financing of ‘successionist and terrorist activities in the Kashmir Valley’. Among materials confiscated from the Greater Kashmir newspaper and organisations including Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS) were laptops, mobile devices, documents, and hard drives containing sensitive data and reporting of human rights violations – possibly in an attempt to adversely affect or discredit their work or to compromise their sources. Fellow activists and journalists described the actions as part of a government-led campaign that uses illicit fundraising as a pretence to silence troublemakers, as authorities ‘cannot tell the human rights groups, individuals or journalists directly to stop their work’. Just over a year later, JKCCS’s coordinator, Khurram Parvez, was arrested and charged under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for, among other things, ‘raising funds for terrorist acts and a terrorist organisation’.

Events in Kashmir mirror similar instances globally where counterterrorism financing and other anti-financial crime standards set by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) have provided useful cover for regimes to suppress dissent. However, presently, such instances of Authoritarian Abuses remain anecdotal, and there is a lack of understanding of how these seemingly isolated incidents actually constitute global trends of abuse. Regimes tend to draw on an implicit ‘playbook’ of common tactics when misusing the FATF standards in this way. Three tactics, and their desired consequences, stand out.

Targets may be charged under money laundering, terrorism financing or other anti-finance crime legislation on dubious grounds and with little evidence

Politically Motivated (Pre-Trial) Detention

From an initial survey of Authoritarian Abuses, we find that lengthy pre-trial detention of dissidents and pro-accountability activists is a common strategy that regimes employ. In most cases, targets are charged under money laundering, terrorism financing or other anti-finance crime legislation on dubious grounds and with little evidence. Politically motivated examples are typically straightforward to spot for this reason, as the immediate apprehension of an individual deemed to pose a threat – and not necessarily criminal conviction – is seen to be the motivator behind such cases. Vague definitions of terrorism enshrined in national laws facilitate this. The UAPA, evoked to keep Khurram Parvez in such lengthy pre-trial detention, has been identified by a group of UN Special Rapporteurs as concerning for its authorisation of warrantless searches and its broad scope, which make it ‘easily amenable to abuse’. But money-laundering charges have been deployed to similar effect. Seen to be causing trouble for his investigation into extrajudicial killings and the freezing of bank accounts held by organisations doing election monitoring activity, Ugandan human rights lawyer Nicholas Opiyo was arrested in December 2020 for supposed money laundering. Uganda’s financial intelligence unit handed financial data on Opiyo to the police, which was used to frame annual donations made to his charity from the American Jewish World Service as being the proceeds of crime.

Targeted Audit Exercises

Targeted audit exercises or other administrative interventions enshrined in anti-financial crime standards are valuable tools for committing Authoritarian Abuses, carrying the advantage of intimidating targets and allowing authorities to collect information which could be used in future actions. This can be easily dressed up as routine supervision or risk management. In 2020, Serbian authorities ordered financial institutions to turn over client data on 20 individuals and 37 organisations all known for their government criticism. Those targeted expressed concern that data would be used to facilitate smear campaigns at some point in the future. Amnesty International’s Europe Director called the investigations ‘a blatant act of intimidation … to silence critics’, highlighting how specifically targeting those critical of the government threatens freedom of the press. Though difficult to measure, it can be assumed that such actions serve to create a ‘chilling effect’ on adjacent individuals and organisations carrying out similar work. Witnessing peer organisations being subjected to targeted audit exercises – supposedly on anti-financial crime grounds – may prompt others to self-censor for fear of being targeted next. Indeed, one of the Kashmiri organisations targeted in the operation in October 2020 claimed that because documents and hard drives containing sensitive material were seized during the raid, they made the decision to halt their research and evidence collection on victims of torture, fearing further reprisals.

Organisational Charges and Asset Freezes

In the same vein as targeted audit activities, asset freezes carried out on target organisations’ bank accounts are a convenient tool for disrupting activity through administrative measures. Assets can remain frozen pursuant to anti-money laundering/counterterrorism financing laws while a criminal case winds its way through the courts, as a means of preventing potential capital flight. This was the case with Russian dissident Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation when it was hit with a bogus money-laundering charge in 2019. The foundation was accused of laundering 1 billion roubles in cash donations – supposedly the proceeds of crime – giving authorities a pretext to freeze the bank accounts of the foundation’s head and regional offices as well as those of associated individuals. It goes without saying how the freezing of an organisation’s bank account impedes its ability to carry out its pro-accountability work. For the Anti-Corruption Foundation, the resultant court case further served to distract staff from their mandated work of exposing corruption and kleptocracy among Russia’s elites, in a clear attempt to paralyse the organisation through cumbersome legal preoccupations. As is often the case, these proceedings were intended to be prolonged and to grind the target down over the long term, with eventual conviction being a secondary interest.

Financial crime charges carry reputational consequences which can serve to stigmatise entire movements or organisations in the eyes of the public

Sketching the Playbook

Admittedly drawn from only a few examples, it would appear that laws and administrative powers based on anti-financial crime standards present several inherently attractive features for regimes wishing to suppress critics. For instance, a unique feature of illicit finance legislation compared to other types of charges that could be brought seems to be the ability to freeze assets or otherwise impede daily operations pending a trail which may or may not ever materialise. This makes such actions attractive when attempting to target small organisations, which can be effectively shut down when key staff are detained or assets are frozen. Similarly, financial crime charges – rightly in most instances – carry reputational consequences which can serve to stigmatise entire movements or organisations in the eyes of the public.

As part of its new project on Authoritarian Abuses, the CFCS at RUSI will further study these tactics and intended consequences by zooming in on two focus regions. Further evidence collection will aid in our ultimate goal of converting anecdotal evidence into a taxonomy of the most common tactics and enabling factors, with a view to supporting accountability actors in anticipating how particular anti-financial crime measures may be weaponised against them and other political opponents in the future.

The author would like to thank Sarah Manney, a former intern with the CFCS, for her contributions to this article.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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